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Kenya Human Rights Leader Fears for Political Freedoms


The head of Kenya's Human Rights Commission says he is concerned about the possible loss of political freedoms his country has gained in recent years because people who commit election violence or manipulate the media are not being punished. Nick Wadhams has the story from Nairobi.

The chief of Kenya's National Human Rights Commission, Maina Kiai, voiced his worries just a few days before the country holds presidential and parliamentary elections on December 27. He spoke at a news conference in which a research group concluded that President Mwai Kibaki has gotten far more coverage on television and radio than his opponents.

The research concludes that the worst violator is the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, or KBC, which is supposed to be independent of the government but clearly favored it in campaign coverage.

Kiai says that trend risks eroding the political freedoms that Kenya has made in the years since President Daniel arap Moi stepped down in 2002. For most of Moi's 24-year rule, multi-party politics were not allowed and the media were severely restricted.

"What message we're trying to say is, hard decisive strong steps need to be taken against those people who are flouting the law. And the question this country has had is impunity," said Kiai. "The reason KBC has continued in the process is because of impunity. I think that is the lesson. We have to take action on those who break the law, otherwise they will keep breaking the law."

Recent polls indicate Mr. Kibaki trails the candidate of the Orange Democratic Movement, Raila Odinga. Experts say that fact is in itself a good sign. They say if Mr. Kibaki loses, he would be a rare incumbent in an African nation who did not win a second term.

Speaking at the same event, Kenya electoral commission member Jack Tumwa said one problem was that the laws governing the electoral body were weak. He said that the next president, whoever he may be, should strengthen them.

But Tumwa disputed Kiai's claim that a culture of impunity was the main reason that such violations continue. He says the ethnic polarization that has defined the campaign season is to blame for any bias.

"The polarization is not based on ideology. It is purely on ethnic grounds. And this does not spare any group. They are all divided on ethnic grounds. Go to the business community. Go to even religious organizations," said Tumwa. "They all suffer these problems. It is this type of polarization that has given way to the biased reporting we have seen et cetera."

Many Kenyans fear that tensions between the Kikuyu tribe, which backs Mr. Kibaki, and the Luo, which support Odinga, could lead to civil unrest after the vote. Human rights advocates say the country has seen scores of people killed in ethnic-related political violence over the last several months.

However, in one encouraging sign, the major presidential candidates have signed a charter urging people not to resort to violence on election day.