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Kenyan Media Raid Exposes Cracks in Government

Kenyans are still outraged by last Thursday's government-led raid of the privately owned Standard Media Group's television station and newspaper printing presses. Observers point to the raid as a further sign of a government losing control and legitimacy.

Protecting media freedom is a huge concern of the thousands of Kenyans who took to the streets this week to protest the raids.

"Michuki must go, Michuki must go. We don't want Michuki, Kibaki in this government. With them there is no government," chanted the protesters.

But observers say protesters' calls for the resignation of National Security Minister John Michuki for his role in ordering the raid, President Mwai Kibaki and other officials also indicate a growing crisis of legitimacy for the once-touted government.

In the early hours of last Thursday, hooded police stormed the offices of the Kenya Television Network, shutting down transmission, taking computers, tapes and other equipment, and briefly detaining four journalists.

Police then stormed the presses of the daily newspaper The Standard, destroying equipment and setting thousands of newspapers on fire.

According to media reports, National Security Minister Michuki planned the raid with the director of the Criminal Investigation Division, Joseph Kamau.

Kamau's boss, Police Commissioner Major-General Hussein Ali, was out of the country, at the time, and claims not to have known about any plans to conduct the attack.

The executive director of Transparency International - Kenya, Mwalimu Mati, says he is very concerned about the presence of what he calls a "rogue police force" that is seemingly split.

But more worrying, says Mr. Mati, is the inability of Information Minister Mutahi Kagwe and other officials to take responsibility for press freedom violations occurring within the past few weeks.

"There's the arrests of the editors and journalists and vendors of The Weekly Citizen, there's the arrests and illegal detention of one of the editors of The Standard and two other journalists, and then there's this," he said. "Surely what else does he need to happen before he takes responsibility, or resigns in protest? He should actually be resigning in protest. He should be saying that, 'I can't be the minister for information when the police are doing crazy things.' He should be calling an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss this issue."

Speculation is rife about why a section of the police force was ordered to carry out the raid, with many believing it was punishment for a story that the Standard ran about an alleged meeting between the president and a former minister who the president fired.

But Mr. Mati is quick to point out that in recent times, details have been emerging about grand government corruption such as the so-called Anglo Leasing scandal in which the government awarded lucrative contracts to fictitious companies.

He says he thinks the media knows much more than they have been reporting to date, and that they have access to a lot of sensitive material.

Mr. Mati says the raid "is meant to shut people up about things that are not yet public domain" so that certain people could avoid going to jail.

For its part, the government defended the raid by saying it was for the common good. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, police spokesman Jaspher Ombati said police raided the offices to collect what he says was evidence about an intended action to stir up ethnic hatred that would have posed a major threat to national security.

Ombati accused Standard journalists of accepting bribes to write articles as part of this alleged action.

But Kenya Television Network Managing Editor Farida Karoney disagrees. Like the Transparency International - Kenya executive director, she says it has something to do with the government wanting to protect its increasingly tarnished image.

"They've been very unhappy about our persistent coverage of corruption issues and their feeling is that we don't highlight anything positive the government is doing," he said. "They know that we are not going to let these corruption stories die off."

This week's media protest march was organized by a loose grouping of MPs calling themselves the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

ODM members, most of who were ministers before President Kibaki fired them last year, have been increasingly vocal in calling for the current government to disband and hold snap elections, and presenting themselves as a viable alternative.

According to Preston Chitere, research fellow at the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research, ODM is gaining a lot of support among Kenyans, mainly because the government is losing touch with the people.

"The government is not reconciled," he explained. "The government is fighting back, reacting. As it keeps reacting and fighting back, and as the dust gathers in Parliament, we don't know what will happen."

Chitere says he thinks the government is hostile, impatient, and antagonistic. He urges the government to re-examine itself and listen and act on Kenyans' views.