New York Times coverage of terrorist attack criticised, students' religious expression sparks debate

Peaceful Assembly

On 16th February 2019, police lobbed teargas canisters to disperse a crowd that had gathered for a rally called by former Lamu County governor Issa Timamy. Timamy had been on a week-long tour of Lamu County to thank his supporters for their support during his election petition against the current governor, a battle he lost at the Supreme Court. This was Timamy’s first public appearance in the region since he lost the governor’s seat to Fahim Twaha in the 2017 general elections. According to sources, Timamy had been warned by the police not to proceed with the rally, with police setting up abrupt road blocks on the roads as they looked for Timamy so as to stop him from attending the rally. Speaking to the Daily Nation the following day, Timamy said:

“I had earlier informed the area OCS (Officer Commanding Station) about the meeting and we were only expecting them to provide security. Why then do they resolve to fight us? They increased the number of roadblocks on the road…That’s unfair.”

In separate developments, on 6th March 2019, thousands of passengers were stranded at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as aviation workers went on strike. The workers under the Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU) opposed the planned merger of the airport with Kenya Airways (KQ). A few hours into the strike, it was reported that KAWU secretary-general Moses Ndiema was arrested over the ongoing strike, as six KQ and Kenya Airport Authority staff were hurt as anti-riot broke up demos.

It was reported that in June 2018, state house (official residence of the presidency) crafted the merger plan which seeks to have Kenya Airways take over the management of key airports in the country such as Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta. The proposed merger, which proponents say is intended to rescue the failing Kenya Airways from collapse, has been opposed by the National Assembly for conflict of interest. The opposition to the merger stems out of its association with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s family business. Kenya Airways owes Commercial Bank of Africa, which is majority owned by the Kenyatta family, more than Ksh4 billion ($40m). Critics have dismissed the proposed takeover of JKIA as “a grand debt recovery plan". 

On 15th January 2019, Somali extremist group Al Shabaab carried out an attack on the DusitD2Complex in Nairobi, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds of others. Graphic images of the attack were shared on social media and across international news outlets resulting in uproar from Kenyans and a public response from President Uhuru Kenyatta. The New York Times was condemned for sharing images of dead victims from the attack, with critics arguing that photos of similar tragedies in the western world always adhere to ethical media standards, and entail consideration for grieving families.New York Times photographer Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura received backlash from readers and the Media Council of Kenya, demanding that she take down the photos and issue a public apology within 24 hours. While Kimiko, in conjunction with the newspaper, issued a statement in response acknowledging that although the images were graphic, they were necessary to demonstrate the reality and intensity of the attack. Critics rejected that argument because of the outlet's alleged evident use of double standards, perceived by many as racist and stereotypical coverage of countries in the global south, reiterating that publication of such graphic pictures of the dead was unethical, and invasive to the families of the deceased victims.

Religious expression in Kenyan schools has sparked debate and litigation over the past few months. In January 2019, Olympic High School  in Nairobi turned away a 15 year old student from registration because of her dreadlocks which her father, Julius Wambua Mwendwa, argued are a form of her religious expression as they are Rastafarian. On 16th January 2019, Mwendwa went to court to challenge the school's directive on the basis of religious discrimination. The matter is scheduled to come up for hearing at the High Court.

In a related incident, on January 24th, 2019, the Supreme Court in a 4-1 majority decision, quashed a Court of Appeal decision that had found it discriminatory for church-sponsored schools to bar Muslim students from wearing the hijab and white trousers. This now leaves school management with the prerogative to determine what students can or cannot wear as uniform, regardless of religious affiliation. The Court of Appeal had found that preventing Muslim girls from wearing the hijab and white trousers in church-sponsored schools violated the Constitution.

However, the Supreme Court quashed the decision on account of a technicality and not on the constitutional and human rights issues of equality before the law; non-discrimination; or freedom of religious belief and conscience. The Methodist church who had filed the initial case, had appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Court of Appeal had technically misdirected itself in entertaining a counter petition by an interested party to the case contrary to the rules. The Supreme Court therefore did not pronounce itself on the substantive rights in question.