Kenya TV stations still off air despite court order

9 February 2018

Regulation & Policy

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) Three major Kenyan television channels remained off the air Friday despite a high court order compelling the government to allow them to resume broadcasting.

In what has been seen by many as media censorship, the government ordered private channels KTN, NTV and Citizen TV to be switched off Tuesday over coverage of a symbolic "swearing-in" of opposition leader Raila Odinga the same day.

The television channels went dark at 10 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) Tuesday -- a move not seen in the country for years.

A court ordered the government Thursday to restore all transmissions immediately pending a February 14 court hearing challenging the decision to shut down the television stations. The channels have continued to stream online throughout the blackout.

Before the ruling, the Interior Ministry had said the networks would remain dark while authorities investigate the "serious breach of security" after the stations aired footage of crowds gathering for the event.

The blackout continued Friday because the Communications Authority of Kenya refused to receive the court summons documents, according to Okiya Omtatah, the activist who petitioned the high court to have the channels turned back on.

The authority will not turn on the stations until it receives the legal papers. But a court process server was detained as he tried to deliver the summons Friday morning, Omtatah claimed.

"Two men who claimed to be policeman apprehended him, turned off his phone and detained him for three hours," Omtatah said. "They gave him back his documents, released him and told him never to set his foot there again."

When Omtatah went to the authority himself he described how men who appeared to be police officers "said they had orders not to let me or anyone associated with the court in the building."

A Kenyan government spokesman declined to comment when asked about Omtatah's claims.

In recent days, the government's apparent censorship has made headlines worldwide. In a statement, the US State Department expressed concerns on both the "inauguration" and the media shutdown. It reiterated that Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president, and urged both parties to resolve their issues in court.

"We reject actions that undermine Kenya's Constitution and the rule of land," the statement said. "We are also deeply concerned by the government's action to shut down, intimidate and restrict the media. Freedom of expression, including for members of the media, is essential to democracy and is enshrined in Kenya's Constitution." The European Union echoed the same sentiment, and urged the dueling sides to maintain calm.

"Kenyan people now have the opportunity to take the country forward and work together on their historical path towards democracy and development," the EU said.

Following the shutdown, three NTV journalists spent the night in the newsroom Wednesday, fearful of arrest by police officers they said had camped outside the building.

Larry Madowo, Linus Kaikai and Ken Mijungu said they holed up in the newsroom after their police sources tipped them that officers planned to arrest them.

"We have not broken any laws ... we were just doing our jobs and I have no apologies about that," Madowo told CNN by phone from Nairobi.

They moved to a "safe house" Thursday. The trio was able to leave the home Friday after receiving a court order preventing their arrest and being granted what is called "anticipatory bail."

The journalists will learn Monday afternoon whether charges will be brought against them.

"This is definitely intimidation. This is harassment and this is an attempt of censorship by the President Kenyatta's government. And it is worrying because Kenya has traditionally had one of the freest media environment in all of Africa," Madowo said.

The Interior Ministry defended its decision to shut down the stations, saying the government had given the media "a full security situation brief well ahead of the illegal activities" of the opposition party.

"Unfortunately, some media houses chose to disregard this advice ... the government took a decision to shut down the concerned media houses," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

CNN has reached out to the government for comment on the journalists' arrest allegations.

Read the full article on CNN here.