Activist files contempt of court case against Kenya government over TV closures

Kenyan activist Okiya Omtatah files a lawsuit seeking the arrest of two Kenyan ministers and a senior official for contempt of court, at the Milimani Court in Nairobi
Kenyan activist Okiya Omtatah files a lawsuit seeking the arrest of two Kenyan ministers and a senior official for contempt of court after the government ignored a court order to reopen three television channels shut down over their political coverage, at the Milimani Court in Nairobi, Kenya, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

February 5, 2018

By George Obulutsa

NAIROBI (Reuters) – An activist filed a lawsuit on Monday seeking the arrest of two Kenyan ministers and a senior official for contempt of court after the government ignored a court order to reopen three television channels shut down over their political coverage.

The case moves Kenya, East Africa’s wealthiest economy and regional powerhouse, one step closer to a possible showdown between the government and judiciary over the unprecedented decision to shutter the three stations.

Kenyan police used teargas to disperse a crowd of more than 100 demonstrators demanding the reopening of the channels, whose closure has also prompted vocal criticism from the United States, the United Nations and ex-colonial ruler Britain.

“The government cannot ignore the ruling of the court,” the activist, Okiya Omtatah, told Reuters as he filed his papers. “I am waiting to get a time when my petition might be heard.”

Omtatah said he was seeking the arrest of the interior minister, the information minister and the director of Kenya’s communications authority for flouting last Thursday’s order.

No one from the government was immediately available for comment.

Kenya’s latest political crisis has its roots in a disputed presidential election last August. President Uhuru Kenyatta won by 1.4 million votes, but the Supreme Court later nullified the results on procedural grounds.

DISPUTED ELECTION

In an October re-run Kenyatta won with 98 percent of the vote after opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted it, complaining it would not be fair. Odinga claims he was the real winner of the August election, although he has not produced any conclusive evidence to back his claim.

Last Tuesday Odinga held a symbolic inauguration of himself as president of Kenya. On the same day the government took three private television channels planning to screen the event off air.

In the past few days, the government has also briefly detained three opposition politicians who took part in Odinga’s ceremony.

One, firebrand lawyer Miguna Miguna, was due to appear in court on Monday but authorities did not produce him or charge him despite a judge’s order.

Instead, the judge ordered the chief of police and director of criminal investigation to appear on Tuesday to explain Miguna’s absence. The police routinely flout such orders.

At Monday’s demonstration the 100 or so protesters had been trying to march on government offices in central Nairobi when police fired the teargas at them, a Reuters witness said.

“We are tired of what is happening. Detention without trial is back, like what has happened to opposition leaders, lack of respect for court orders,” said one demonstrator, Wilfred Olal.

“Unfortunately despite having notified the police, despite the constitution giving us the right to picket, demonstrate and assemble, they still stopped us with teargas.”

Odinga’s opposition alliance has not yet announced his next plans. He failed to show up at a rally on Sunday, leaving his allies to explain that they would outline their plan next week.

(additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Humphrey Malalo; writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Gareth Jones and Ed Osmond)

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