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Lobby groups urge media houses to sue State for shutdown losses

The government’s shutdown of independent television stations on Tuesday for broadcasting an opposition rally was a violation of human rights and it should be made to pay for the damage and lost revenues, human rights groups have said.

The Communication Authority of Kenya (CA) switched off the TVs mid-morning to prevent a live broadcast of the ‘swearing-in’ of Nasa leader Raila Odinga as the ‘people’s president’ at Uhuru Park, Nairobi.

Mr Henry Maina, the regional director of Article 19, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on the defence of freedom of expression, said the decision was illegal in that the CA did not follow any known procedure of law or communicate in advance and there was no fair process to determine the breach committed.

“A unilateral process of just switching off was not only a violation of media freedom, it was also a violation of fair administrative action, which is expected of any public officers, and runs afoul of Kenya’s international and human rights obligations, where Kenya sits as a member of the UN Human Rights Council,” said Mr Maina.

The Civil Society Reference Group (CSRG) described the shutdown as “the worst State interference with the freedom and independence of the media in post-independence Kenya”.

It added: “It is a brazen attempt at muzzling the press and denying the people of Kenya and the rest of the world the right to know what was going on on a day that was packed with anxiety and apprehension as to what would happen in light of threats by state security.”

DEMOCRACY SUFFERS

NTV, which is owned by Nation Media Group, was the first to go off air, followed by Citizen TV of Royal Media Services Ltd. Two hours later, KTN, which is owned by Standard Group, was switched off.

In a statement, Mr Ndung’u Wainaina, executive director of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict, described the shutdown as the latest in a series of threats against democracy and openness in society.

“When media is arm-twisted by the state to try limiting its independence, free media is lost,” said Mr Wainaina. “And democracy suffers. Popular dissent is a key pillar of democracy. Sovereignty of people is not subject to State control and privilege.”

Mr Maina said: “We know that this is the first time it is happening post-2010 and we shouldn’t have the media treat it casually because it could just be the beginning of what will turn out to be the normal way government is going to be behaving.”

Mr Maina said the affected media houses should calculate the loss from the shutdown and sue the CA for compensation for the period that they were off air.

He cited among the unquantifiable losses as the loophole created by the switch-off for proliferation of fake news and misinformation since viewers did not have an opportunity to get news processed by journalists.

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The CA is without a director-general after Mr Francis Wangusi was sent on compulsory leave two weeks ago over recruitment queries, with subsequent revelations that there were other issues between him and the ICT ministry.

NTV Managing Editor Linus Kaikai, who is also the chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, said CA engineers with police escort disabled the system at the transmission station at Limuru.

“They targeted the signal distribution platforms,” said Mr Kaikai, referring to the Africa Digital Network (ADN) and Signet, adding that they also disabled the local channels on DSTV.

RMS managing director Wachira Waruru said: “We would like to confirm that, this morning, the Communication Authority disconnected Citizen and Inooro TV transmission. There has been no official communication as to why this action was taken.”

Neither ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru nor the CA was willing to talk to journalists on the matter.

Meanwhile, the hostility by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government towards the free media continued later on Tuesday when NMG journalists were turned away from covering him at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on his arrival from a foreign trip.

The Presidential Strategic Communication Unit (PSCU) only let in the State-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and K24, which is associated with the Kenyatta family.