Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kenyan journalist refuses to bow to intimidation

Shadowy figures duck into businesses or scoot around corners when you approach. Later, you hear strange clicks on your phone. Are you paranoid, or is someone really following you and tapping your phone?

Soon thereafter, all doubt is erased when these figures actually emerge from the shadows, and confront you in a direct, intimidating way. They know where you live, they sneer, or worse—they inform you that they know where your child attends school.

While this may sound like a cold-war spy novel, it is, alarmingly, a slice of life for some journalists in Kenya, particularly those covering anything that might make the government uncomfortable. This ranges from routine corruption stories to reports about the proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Kenyan officials and journalists.

One journalist committed to making officials uncomfortable is Robert Wanjala, a freelance reporter based in Eldoret in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Eldoret and the region around it was ground zero for the post-election violence that scarred Kenya in 2007-08, and have been center stage ever since for acts of intimidation against journalists.

Wanjala writes about an increased level of threats and intimidation against the ICC witnesses and any other groups/individuals perceived by this government as its critics --including the press reporting on the issue. He said, “While I have not been directly involved in physical attacks, I have faced numerous indirect threats and intimidations from people well known – government operatives.

“I have shared these concerns with some of my colleagues and they too have expressed similar threats and intimidation in line of their duty. Some have even quit their jobs or sought refuge elsewhere,” he observed.

Wanjala, fearful of government retribution, has made the strategic decision to speak out about his situation in hopes that national and international press coverage will offer him, and his family, some degree of protection from government thugs. He has reached out to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London and the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in the United States in hopes that they will publicize his situation and thus make it more problematic to assault him or his family. 

Wanjala said the harassment against him started last fall. He wrote, “On several occasions, I have been warned by people posing as police officers to stop writing on ICC because it’s not in the interest of the country. Some have told me to look for something better to do before things become worse. 

“This is the situation for me, last October three gentlemen “police officers” as I learned later visited one of my former employer’s office in Eldoret. They wanted to know the whereabouts of   my colleague whom I worked with together in this office prior to the December 2007 general election.
“…In two different occasions last December, two gentlemen approached me while having lunch in downtown restaurants in Eldoret. For 30 minutes, these men interrogated me over my relationship with (an ICC witness)... They also talked to me on whereabouts of my former colleague as well whose interest I write about ICC.

“Early in the same month, two men accosted me in another restaurant in same town and of curious interest they seemed so well informed about my life, where I live and about my family – my wife and two kids including where my daughter schools. That was pretty scaring because to be honest I don’t know these guys – I have never met them and I don’t know what else they know about me!
“…Identified as officials from CID (Criminal Investigation Department) from Nairobi, these gentlemen refused to show me their job IDs but reassured me they were only doing what they were sent to do and I should be grateful that the government is aware of my work. 

“In the same month of December my cell phone began making some irritating noise and when I sought phone technician advice was told there was a possibility it was being monitored security-wise. It cracks with very strange feedback which phone experts say it could be under some sort of surveillance,” Wanjala said. (Note: Wanjala reports that his suspicions about his phone monitoring can’t be confirmed, so it’s possible his phone may not be tapped and that he may just be overly suspicious because of the intimidation directed his way).

The intimidation directed against Wanjala is not unusual in Kenya. The Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org) reports that at least 15 journalists were threatened or attacked in Kenya in 2012, 10 of them in connection with their coverage of corruption-related issues. CPJ research also says that the majority of attacks and threats against the press occurred in small towns, and that about half the attacks took place in Western Kenya (where Wanjala is based). In addition, CPJ reports that “several journalists were threatened or attacked in 2012 in reprisal for their reporting on official corruption,” and that most of these incidents took place in Western Kenya. Finally, CPJ and others widely reported harassment and threats against journalists after the Nairobi mall attack last year.
Given the hostile media climate, and the personal threats, it would be understandable if Wanjala elected to walk away from his job to protect himself and his family. However, he bristles at this notion.

Wanjala said, “While I remain careful in every step I'll be making from now for my family's sake, I refuse to succumb to the government's threats and intimidation whose aim is to silent or frighten me and other journalists working for the common good of the under-represented in the society. Backing off will only emboldens such elements and give them a reason to think they have achieved what they initially wanted - to put fear or scare off any critical voice to (the)  government.”

Alarmed at Wanjala’s email, and concerned about his welfare, I wrote him back immediately. I said, “I am so sorry to hear about your troubles, but very proud of you for your commitment to your readers and to your country. I hope that, given similar circumstances, I would behave as you have. However, it's easy for me to be courageous sitting here (in the U.S.)  without a care in the world.
“My most important advice is this--do what is necessary to take care of yourself and your family. If this means quitting or pausing reporting, then that is what you may need to do. I know this is a drastic step, but it is always an option that should at least remain in the back of your mind. Your safety, and that of your family, comes first,” I wrote.

Wanjala—stubborn, brave, and committed—rejected my advice out of hand. “I think remaining in the profession is the best thing to do, and this has nothing to do with wanting to cut a niche for myself internationally. If death is the ultimate cost to pay for being the voice to the voiceless, the marginalized, those who lost their loved ones following the post-election violence or those killed innocently by police brutality then let it be,” he wrote.

There is no easy or quick solution to the harassment that Wanjala and his colleagues have been enduring. Instead, the best that Western interests can do is to maintain pressure on the Kenyan government to respect and protect all journalists.

To Robert Wanjala and his colleagues under pressure from Kenyan authorities, the Center for Global Peace Journalism, and the international journalism community, offer their unwavering support and commitment to a free, vibrant press in East Africa and around the world.

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