Turning Point in Kenya? Update on opposition to Kenyan anti-NGO and Media Bills

“Freedom of Expression is Your Right”–Subversive NGO Solganeering in Kenya’s Neighbor Uganda
"Freedom of expression is your right"

Opposition to controversial Kenya Media Bill heats up” Sabahi Online via AllAfrica.com

Cuts in foreign funding for NGOs intended to silence critics–Human Rights Watch” from Trust.org

William Ruto and his Ethiopian host had chilling message on media freedom” from Macharia Gaitho in The Daily Nation.

Kenya attempts to silence civil society“, Freedom House Spotlight on Freedom.

For perspective (not just to say I warned you so) see my post about Kenyatta and media freedom from December 2009:  “More Government of Kenya action to muzzle media”:

The Standard reports that it has been enjoined  from publishing stories regarding Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and the purchasing of government vehicles.  Uhuru sought the temporary injunction to protect his interests and reputation.  Seems like a classic case of a high gov’t official using prior restraint to avoid challenge to his job performance.

This is to me another example of fact that the media environment in Kenya is not quite as free as international commentators frequently suggest.  While there is quite a bit of reporting on corruption, the fact remains that it hasn’t dented impunity, and there is a great deal that is known but not reported, and many stories get started but never followed to conclusion.

After the paramilitary raid on the Standard Group in mid-2006, the US eventually made peace with impunity for this attack on the media.  By the summer of 2007, then-Internal Security Minister Michuki–who famously said of the Standard raid that the Standard, having “rattled a snake” should have expected “to get bitten” for its reporting–was the featured speaker at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July celebration, talking of his recent security cooperation tour in the US.  With this background for its critics in the Government, the press can’t help but wonder how far it can go.

And from March of this year: “Attacks on Kenyan Civil Society prefigured in Jubilee ‘manifesto'”

“And the beat(ings) go on . . .”; as 2007 bleeds into 2013, what would it take for Human Rights Watch and others to make Kenyan politics less deadly?

The latest Kenya release from Human Rights Watch, dated yesterday, decries the terrible beating of Kenyan activist Okiya Omtatah Okoiti.

Omtatah, executive director of Kenyans for Justice and Development (KEJUDE) Trust, a local NGO that advocates for transparency and accountability, was attacked by two unidentified men in central Nairobi. He lost six teeth and suffered serious injuries to his face and the back of his head, which required surgery. Omtatah told Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 that the attackers demanded that he withdraw a lawsuit he filed to demand accountability in the procurement of biometric voter registration (BVR) kits because of corruption associated with the process.

“This vicious attack was clearly meant not just to intimidate Omtatah but to seriously injure him – and perhaps even to kill him,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The aim seems to be to stop his work on corruption in the procurement of biometric voter registration kits for the upcoming elections.”

Certainly this is a crucial and timely issue in working toward integrity in the upcoming Kenyan election and in protecting an activist who took a big risk in pursuing legal action against election-related corruption. So kudos to Human Rights Watch and Article 19 for calling attention to the attack. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that anything will actually happen as a result of this statement that “[t]he Kenyan authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate a serious physical assault . . . and bring appropriate charges.” Of course, they should–that goes without saying; of course. they won’t.

Why won’t they? Are they confident they can wait it out and the outside actors and international players who care about Omtatah now will move on to the next outrage, the next victim, without really disrupting the vicious cycle?

Why would I suggest this? Not to be gratuitously critical of Human Rights Watch or any of the many organizations trying to support human rights defenders. Rather I say this on the basis of my own hard-earned experience with well-intentioned failure in dealing with election fraud and violence in Kenya in 2007/08. I moved my family to Kenya for a year to help support democracy in the last election cycle–we were able to take in a couple of displaced families for a few months after the election, and help a few others a bit, but nothing that I did in my NGO work really changed anything as far as upholding democracy. My organization, IRI, issued a report noting the election fraud, in July 2008, and in August 2008 released the exit poll showing that voters at the polls on election day reported favoring the opposition, before the mark-ups of the tallies for the incumbent at the Electoral Commission in Nairobi afterwards. But these reports were months too late to really matter. It is going to take more to make a difference in the brutal world of Kenyan politics.

So how does Human Rights Watch yesterday describe what happened with the 2007/08 election situation:
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