The Kenyan government cut the transmission of three private television stations on Tuesday to curtail coverage of the mock presidential inauguration of opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Hours later, the state criminalised Mr Odinga’s informal National Resistance Movement, reinforcing its autocratic reputation and deepening the country’s political crisis.
Mr Odinga refuses to recognise President Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election victory in October last year because of alleged rigging.
Kenya has long been regarded as one of sub-Saharan Africa's more vibrant democracies. But in recent months Mr Kenyatta has clamped down on civil society, undermined judicial independence and attacked international election observers.
Duncan Otieno, a political analyst, said the government was showing its true nature. “They are autocrats who are just waiting for a small incident to implement their autocracy,” he said. “We can expect to see more of this going forwards.”
Citizen TV, Inooro and Kenya Television Network News were blocked completely on all networks. KTN News’ parent channel, KTN, and Nation TV were cut on free-to-air networks and stopped broadcasting coverage of Mr Odinga’s rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters.
However, all the channels were still available online and social media was not censored.
The Communications Authority of Kenya, the industry regulator, did not explain its decision to stop the TV stations from broadcasting.
Joe Odindo, editorial director of KTN News, said the restrictions showed “just how intolerant and thin-skinned the government are for people who are supposed to be politicians”.
He added: “They find dissenting critical voices unbearable and have said newspapers are only good for wrapping chips in. But Kenyans are robust, argumentative and expressive people and their right to be so is enshrined in the constitution.”
Mr Otieno said the move against the broadcasters was particularly perplexing because the government did not block Mr Odinga’s rally. “Why let the event go ahead but muzzle the media?” he asked.
Mr Odinga held his inauguration to protest against what he claims was an unfair electoral process last year. The veteran leader, who had lost three previous contests, believes he won the original election held in August but says the result was rigged in Mr Kenyatta’s favour.
Kenya’s supreme court nullified the result of the August vote, citing irregularities and illegalities in the tallying, and ordered a rerun. Mr Odinga boycotted the new election, in October, saying the electoral commission had not been sufficiently reformed to guarantee a free and fair vote.
However, the poll went ahead, with Mr Kenyatta winning 98.3 per cent of the vote, but on a greatly reduced turnout. The supreme court unanimously rejected appeals against the result and Mr Kenyatta was inaugurated in November.
After the October election Mr Odinga’s National Super Alliance rebranded itself as the National Resistance Movement but it never registered as an official organisation. However, shortly after the opposition rally ended on Tuesday, the government branded the NRM “an organised criminal group”.
Dennis Onyango, a spokesman for Mr Odinga, said: "NRM is a concept and an idea and not a physical organisation. Every Nasa supporter is an NRM."
At his mock inauguration, Mr Odinga said: “Today is a stop [on the journey] in doing away with electoral autocracy and bringing proper democracy to our country.”
Yet his position was undermined by the conspicuous absence of his three main allies during last year’s elections.
“I think this might be the beginning of his end politically,” Mr Otieno said. “But Mr Odinga performs well in a crisis so if a crisis emanates out of this, he could benefit.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018