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State must walk the talk on media freedom

What exactly is the government’s attitude towards media freedom? Often, one hears high-sounding declarations of commitment to the rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution, including media freedom. But as often, one sees blatant violations of just these rights by the state. This is utterly unacceptable. Either the government respects the rule of law or it doesn’t. It can’t have it both ways.

On Wednesday, September 5, government spokesman Eric Kiraithe once again reiterated the government’s respect for media freedom. He gave the affirmation in the context of the abduction of Nation journalist Barack Oduor and Rongo University student Sharon Otieno. Oduor reportedly jumped out of the moving car they were held in and managed to escape from what was clearly a plot to kill the duo. Sharon was not lucky. She was found brutally murdered in a forest.

Kiraithe promised the public and the media expeditious investigations to bring perpetrators of the heinous crime to justice.

“Once again the government reiterates its dedication to uphold and protect media freedom,” Kiraithe said.

But on the same day Kiraithe was telling the world this, armed police officers stormed the Africa headquarters of China Global Television Network in Nairobi and arrested 13 foreign employees. Police were ostensibly looking for illegal migrant workers.

Journalist Saddique Shaban who works at the station tweeted: “Armed police officers, about a dozen, with automatic weapons, have raided the China Global Television Network Africa HQ in Nairobi, rounding up staff members and demanding identity/alien cards and work permits from mostly expatriates working here. They did not ID themselves.”

“The police stormed the @cgtnafrica newsroom with guns, apparently “looking for foreigners”. Having seen a similar undercover raid at KTN in 2006, we asked that the police identify themselves. They refused and attempted to make arbitrary arrests”, Shaban said in another tweet.

Understandably, the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi was puzzled by the arrests and said in a statement they would take up the matter with the Kenya government diplomatically.

“This noon, the Chinese Embassy received help call from 13 Chinese nationals. They stated that they were detained by Kenyan police even though they held legal documents. The consular offices of the Chinese Embassy then went to the police station to know about the situation,” the statement read.

Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet confirmed the incident, saying the operation was conducted in search of illegal immigrants, the Standard reported.

The arrested workers were later released after police established that they had valid work documents.

Now, what is the point of such harassment by agents of a government that avows media freedom?

A Reuters report quoted police spokesman Charles Owino apologising for the raid, saying they acted on misleading information.

“The raid on the Chinese state-owned broadcaster was based on false information,” he said. “We sincerely apologise for the mishap… Those detained were released later.”

That is lame. Imagine a dozen armed policemen storming a TV station on the basis of fake information. If so, then whoever ordered the raid is incompetent and should be kicked out of the service. A key component of policing is investigation.

Doctors who open a patient’s head instead of treating his bruised knee are prosecuted and fired. Arguing that they somehow misdiagnosed the patient is no defence. So should police who act on fake information. It is their duty to verify everything they gather in the course of duty.

“Whilst government agencies have a right to conduct their business, but the manner in which they stormed CGTN Africa HQ is despicable, unprofessional and dangerous”, Saddique Shaban tweeted.

We agree. Police officers should not behave like bandits. The government must demonstrate its commitment to media freedom – not preaching empty rhetoric.

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