By Anthony Mitchell
Friday, March 3, 2006
NAIROBI, March 2 -- Masked police commandos smashed printing presses and seized transmission equipment Thursday in early morning raids at Kenya's second-largest media company. Three reporters were charged with creating public alarm in what officials said was a national security case.
"If you want to rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it," John Michuki, the internal security minister, said at a news conference, pointing his finger at journalists. His comments raised the specter of more attacks against the news media and a return to the kind of repression common under former president Daniel arap Moi.
Kenya's news media, which have reported aggressively on corruption scandals swirling around President Mwai Kibaki, were uncowed.
The Standard, which was targeted, published a special edition about the raids Thursday, and its sister organization, the Kenya Television Network, was back on the air in the afternoon, taking viewers' calls on the issue.
Rival newspapers also published special lunchtime editions on the crackdown, while other television networks broadcast blanket coverage of it.
Several thousand Kenyans marched to the offices of the Standard Group in central Nairobi in a defiant show of support.
"I think the raid came because the president is feeling threatened by all the criticism he is facing," said Yasin Khan, a bookseller.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi condemned the raids as "acts of thuggery that have no place in an open democratic society." The United Nations expressed alarm, and the European Union called for an investigation.
Kibaki, who was swept to power in 2002 on an anti-graft ticket, has had three ministers step down in the last month under a cloud of corruption allegations and faces a growing clamor for further resignations.
The raids began at 1 a.m. when dozens of men with assault rifles burst into the Standard's printing plant and KTN's offices, taking computers and transmission equipment, damaging the presses and setting fire to tens of thousands of Thursday's edition. Security staff members were roughed up.
"We believe this is a direct and blatant attempt to undermine the freedom of the press in this country that is guaranteed by the constitution. It is also intended to paralyze our business," said Tom Mshindi, chief executive of the Standard Group.