“If you rattle a snake…” The Kenyan government bites its media

In 2006 the Kenyan police violently raided the offices and printing press of the Standard Group media organisation. What was the government afraid of seeing reported? Dominic Burbidge explores a revealing case.

The case

In March 2006, masked men armed with AK-47s broke into the offices and printing press of the Standard Group in Nairobi, Kenya, beating journalists, taking the television station off air and setting fire to thousands of copies of the media group’s newspaper. Although the midnight raid appeared initially to have been organised by criminals, the kidnapped journalists were deposited in police stations and the police took responsibility, justifying their operation by claiming journalists were receiving payments for writing articles that incited ethnic hatred. The government announced it had acted directly against media it deemed a threat to national security. The Internal Security Minister John Michuki said, “If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

But what snake did the Standard Group rattle? One freelance reporter arrested during the raid explained how the prisoners were questioned over “who owned the Standard” and “how to dismantle” the Kenya Television Network and Standard Group’s newspaper printing press. Following the raid, three journalists were charged for publishing alarming statements regarding President Mwai Kibaki but later released on bail, with the charges eventually dropped in September of the same year.

Author opinion

The Standard Group is known as the second-largest media house of Kenya, the first being the Nation, a media group widely perceived as more accommodating to President Kibaki and his Party of National Unity. Just before the masked raid on the offices of the Standard Group the media published stories on the Anglo Leasing corruption scandal, when John Githongo, government corruption tsar, released a report identifying the government in enormous graft projects. The attack on the Standard Group thus came on the back of a humiliation for the government, and the suggestion was immediately levelled that the raid sought to make journalists think twice before reporting negatively on the administration’s corruption. Kenya has suffered a history of political assassinations, and extrajudicial killings by the police are an almost everyday affair. Journalists are aware of the risks involved in reporting on a government willing to use the police and secret service for unethical ends.

At the same time, there is still confusion over why exactly the Kibaki government felt the need to quell the Standard newspaper edition of that particular day. At first sight it seems there was anxiety over the release of a story on a secret meeting held between Kibaki and Kalonzo Musyoka, the latter an MP who went on to become Vice-President after the 2007 elections. However, there is also strong evidence that the raid was led by two Armenian brothers, Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargsyan, who were perhaps alarmed at the prospect that they were soon to be exposed as drug traffickers and hitmen receiving protection for their activities from the Kenyan state.

In these circumstances, the state’s persecution of the press meant the underlying reasons for the government’s action may never be exposed.

- Dominic Burbidge

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Comments (1)

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  1. It is a great pity. Who gave the national privilege to the polices to hurt ordinary persons? Even though the these journalists encountered a viper, they still stood up and sreamed the facts out. Really admire these reporters and hope they will better.

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