Kenya Gets a Little Less Free

One stubbornly enduring consequence of the September 11th attacks has been the curtailing of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. This was true in the United States and is true around the world as well.

Case in point, the hundreds of NGOs recently shut down by the Kenyan government, in an attempt to root out support for extremists, in particular Al-Shabab. All in all, 514 local and international NGOs are targeted. In addition, a select group of 12 NGOs are facing accusations of aiding and recruiting terrorists, and money laundering. The Kenyan authorities are calling their humanitarian purpose a “red herring”, behind which illegal activities are taking place. Caught in this wide dragnet are a dozen major international organizations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, Concern Worldwide or TechnoServe, raising questions about the sweeping nature of the decision.

“We are working round the clock to restore discipline in the charity industry. We cannot have a situation where NGOs are an integral conduit of all manner of vices,” the newly-appointed Executive Director of the NGO Co-ordination Board Mohamed Fazul said. The targeted NGOs bank accounts and assets are being frozen, and foreign employee visas are being revoked, while further investigations are under way. The major NGOs accused of funding terrorism have three weeks to bring their reporting in line with state expectations, or face shut down.

Beyond this move – the largest ever crackdown on Kenya’s charitable sector – the Kenyan parliament passed new amendments to the anti-terrorism law on Thursday . The amendments were passed amid a scene of complete chaos in the Kenyan parliament, with MPs vociferously voicing their discontent with the law.

The amendments would increase the number of days suspected terrorists can be held without charges from 90 to 360, and includes provisions to fine media organizations up to 5 million shillings (roughly $55,000) for printing material that is “likely to cause fear or alarm.” Worryingly, the amendment does not specifically define what constitutes such material. Media organizations and free speech advocates are concerned that this will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Kenya, and that the real intent of the law is not to target terrorists, but instead to target voices of dissent. Some of the other changes brought about by the legislation include increased powers for intelligence agencies to monitor communications without a judicial warrant, and the requirement for media to obtain clearance from the government before investigating or writing about issues of national security.

These moves by the Kenyan government were denounced both nationally and internationally, but it’s important to note that these legislative changes and actions taken against civil society organizations are par for the course in the war against terror. Indeed, across the world, national governments are justifying curbing fundamental freedoms under the guise of fighting terrorism. Boniface Mwangi, an activist and photographer told The Guardian that “It’s not an anti-terror bill, it’s an anti-media, anti-activist, anti-citizens bill. They can arrest me without evidence or a warrant. We are going back to the days of dictatorship.”

Faced with a perceived, growing terror threat and increasingly emboldened extremists, the government of Kenya is doubling down on their response, at the expense of a free and open society. Capturing the feeling of many of the concerned voices in Kenya, Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa, a Kenyan civil rights organization which was not targeted by the recent crackdown, noted that “the government is acting in anger which is very wrong.”