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Kenya's High Court Orders Government to Reopen Country's Top 3 TV Outlets

An empty studio of a Kenyan TV channel is seen following its coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga's mock presidential inauguration this week, at the Nation Group media building in Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 1, 2018.

Kenya’s high court has ordered the government to restore transmission for the independent broadcasters taken off the air Tuesday ahead of the opposition’s “swearing-in” ceremony for its leader, Raila Odinga as the "people's president." The interior minister has accused the media of being complicit in an effort to subvert the elected government and spark violence. Press freedom advocates say the government has gone too far.

Article 19, along with other human rights groups, took the government to court to challenge its decision to suspend the three leading independent TV stations over what the Interior Ministry said were security concerns.

On Thursday, the high court ruled that the stations must be restored to air pending a full hearing in the case, according to a tweet from KTN, one of the affected broadcasters.

Henry Maina heads the East Africa office of Article 19, a global NGO that promotes freedom of expression and information worldwide. He says Kenya has never witnessed such an attack on press freedom.

“This is the lowest Kenya has ever come to in the last 30 to 40 years," he said. "We’ve never had any media shutdown by the state. We used to have challenges with newspapers being banned, but a TV or a radio station has never been shut down in Kenya. So this is the lowest the country has sunk in terms of media freedom.”

The government did not immediately respond to the ruling. Kenya’s interior minister, Fred Matiang'i, said Wednesday the media houses would remain shut until investigations are over.

“We will bring each one of individuals involved in illegal activity to book,” he said.

His words sparked fear and outrage in the local press community. Three journalists at the Nation media group, which runs one of the suspended TV stations, told VOA they spent the night in their office building after getting word of plainclothes police officers waiting for them outside.

The state accuses the media of ignoring its advice to not air the opposition swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi. The three broadcasters were all planning to go ahead with live coverage at the time they were cut.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga holds a bible aloft after swearing an oath during a mock "swearing-in" ceremony at Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 30, 2018.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga holds a bible aloft after swearing an oath during a mock "swearing-in" ceremony at Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 30, 2018.

Raila Odinga, speaking for the first time after his self-inauguration, said the government is taking away the gains the country has made. He made reference to KANU, the party that ruled Kenya for decades since independence.

“The attack on the media, the arbitrary arrests of individuals, intimidation of the judiciary, divide and rule tactics. KANU is back," he said. "KANU is back with force by a new name that we must fight. We fought for a long time to give this country a new constitution in 2010. That new constitution together with all the freedom that it entails is under serious attack right now.”

Odinga has refused to accept the results of an October presidential run-off, which he boycotted. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner. Odinga took a symbolic oath of office Tuesday as the so-called “people’s president.”

TJ Kajwang, the opposition MP who administered the oath, was brought in front of a judge Thursday, accused of treason and organizing a public meeting without informing the authorities.

VOA spoke to his lawyer, Nelson Havi.

“We looked at the charge sheet. We talked to our client. We realized that he had been tortured, had been moved around all over town from one station to another station and the intention was to intimidate him,” he said.

On Thursday, the judge charged Kajwang with enabling Odinga to commit treason and ordered him released on bail of 50,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $500.

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