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Protect media freedom on Kenyan election day, rights group says

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is the text of a letter addressed by IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie to the media and state representatives of Kenya on the occasion of the national elections on March 4, 2013:

Today Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new president, and in the event that no candidate has an absolute majority a run-off vote will be held. This election process will test the strength of democratic reforms - including those enshrined in a new Constitution - put in place after the bloodshed of the 2007 elections. The election will also be a test for Kenyan media, and for the institutions that must ensure the safety of journalists.

Kenyan journalists have a hard job. They face threats and intimidation, and several reporters have reportedly suffered violent attacks by party supporters, police and members of the public this campaign season, in some cases because of the perceived bias of some media outlets.

In the most recent case a journalist was beaten up and injured, according to the Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA) – which, in
a statement, expressed "alarm" at "increasing threats and attacks on journalists by security forces and other actors" ahead of the election. A journalist in Western Kenya was beaten up by security personnel after he tried to film a confrontation between rival groups of political supporters.

The violence that followed the 2007 presidential race took the lives of more than 1000 people, and drove more than half a million Kenyans from their homes. Journalists were subjected to attacks then too. A ban on live broadcasts was imposed for several weeks, and major news outlets, including the publicly owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, were accused of being biased.

In addition, some media, especially radio stations, were accused of fuelling the violence. One journalist, Joshua Arap Sang of KASS FM, now faces charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

For the eight presidential candidates, today's vote will be the culmination of weeks and months of planning and campaigning. For the Electoral Commission of Kenya, it is a moment to reassert authority and credibility. For the police and security forces, it is a chance to uphold the rule of law while respecting human rights. And for the media it offers an opportunity to report accurately and fairly, without resorting to slurs or stereotypes.

This time around, donors have reportedly increased their support for the elections, including providing more journalists training. The
Media Council and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission are reportedly monitoring hate speech. While some radio stations have reportedly been warned over inflammatory speech, others have been praised for promoting peace.

The Kenyan media must rise to this occasion, both in terms of upholding standards and in demanding that its safety be assured. Officials, security services and political parties, for their part, must respect the role of reporters and allow them to work freely and safely. For, ultimately, it is the responsibility of state authorities to safeguard media freedom and journalists' safety. Where they do not do so, democracy is threatened.


Alison Bethel McKenzie

Executive Director

International Press Institute (IPI)