February 1, 2018 / 11:18 AM / 23 days ago

Kenya government ignores court order suspending shutdown of three TV stations

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Three private Kenyan television channels remained off air despite a court order on Thursday that they be allowed to resume broadcasting, overturning a government-ordered shut down.

Authorities turned off the three channels as they began to cover opposition leader Raila Odinga’s symbolic presidential inauguration on Tuesday.

NTV Kenya, three of whose journalists said they had spent the night in their newsroom in fear of arrest, said on its Twitter feed that the privately owned broadcasters were expected back on air after the High Court ruling.

“Government expected to restore NTV, Citizen TV & KTN News signals after High Court suspends switch off for 14 days pending case being heard,” it tweeted.

No government spokesmen were available to explain why the three channels were still off air at 2000 GMT, around eight hours after the judgement was given.

The U.S. State Department said it was gravely concerned by Odinga’s “self-‘inauguration’” and deeply concerned by the government’s action “to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media.”

In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said grievances must be resolved through legal mechanisms and added: “We commend the restraint shown by security forces and urge them to continue to refrain from any unnecessary or excessive use of force.”

The government shut down the TV channels on Tuesday as they began coverage of a rally during which Odinga -- who says last year’s elections, won by President Uhuru Kenyatta, were rigged -- declared himself president in a brief, symbolic ceremony.

The shutdown, unprecedented in Kenya’s democratic era, prompted fierce public criticism and raised fears the country was reverting to the censorship that characterised decades of repressive one-party rule under strongman Daniel arap Moi.

The court’s decision -- to suspend the shutdown for two weeks while a case challenging the legality of the government’s action is heard -- will boost the newly-independent judiciary’s image in East Africa’s regional powerhouse and wealthiest economy.

The government’s attempted censorship made global headlines about a country that is valued by investors for its stability, relative freedom and steady economic growth.

“This is clearly a slide to dictatorship. It’s a return to a repressive period we had forgotten about,” NTV journalist Larry Madowo told Reuters. “We are becoming another African country.”

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga of NASA coalition gestures during a swearing-in ceremony as the president of the People’s Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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NTV journalist Ken Mijungu told Reuters that he and colleagues Madowo and Linus Kaikai had all been warned by security sources on Wednesday that their arrest was imminent.

In African states with entrenched rulers such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, governments have asked telecommunications companies to block social media, mainly during elections and protests.

On Wednesday, the Kenyan government had said the TV stations would stay off air indefinitely.

Interior Minister Fred Matiang‘i accused media organisations of facilitating Odinga’s “illegal act”, which he said put the lives of thousands of Kenyans at risk. [L8N1PQ3JZ]

Clashes between Odinga supporters and security forces claimed around 100 lives during the election season. Almost all were killed by the police.

Also on Wednesday, police arrested opposition lawmaker Tom Kajwang for illegally administering Odinga’s “oath”. He was expected to be charged on Thursday oath but was taken out of court by police before the charges were read. He was later freed on a 50,000 Kenyan shilling (£350.43) bond.

Kenyatta won an Aug. 8 election that was later nullified by the Supreme Court over irregularities. A repeat election was held on Oct. 26, but Odinga boycotted it because he said the electoral commission had made insufficient reforms.

Kenyatta won with more than 98 percent of the vote.

Odinga, whom the government accuses of trying to force a bloody confrontation with the authorities, gave no hint in his five-minute speech at Tuesday’s rally about future actions and deflected questions on Thursday about his next move.

“We want (ruling party) Jubilee to accept that they lost the election,” he told a news conference, promising to release details of his plan the next day.

The opposition leader accused the government of suspending the constitution by attacking the media, and batted away suggestions his staged inauguration was a bid to seize power.

“I am not a megalomaniac. I am a very reasonable Kenyan,” Odinga said.

Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo and John Ndiso in Nairobi and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Catherine Evans and Diane Craft

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