As civil society in Kenya marks the Saba Saba Day, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa launches #FreeToProtest – a new campaign calling on the government and the police force to respect the right to protest.
Saba Saba Day is an annual reminder of Kenya’s long and proud history of protest. On 7th July 1990, thousands of people took to the streets to demand pro-democratic reforms. As a result of police violence, 39 people died and over 5000 were arrested.
The events of that day are now recognised as key to the emergence of multi-party democracy and constitutional reforms in Kenya. One of those key reforms has been the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, which guarantees the right to protest.
Yet, to this day, Kenyans are still prevented from exercising it, as documented by ARTICLE 19’s new research.
Despite the ratification of international and regional treaties meant to safeguard protest, the Kenyan state and the police continue to use unnecessary or disproportionate force as well as harassment to discourage, prevent or disperse protest. Poor and marginalised groups and women often experience particularly negative treatment at the hands of the authorities.
The Kenya: Restricting the right to be heard report found that, instead of protecting protest, Kenya’s police are frequently responsible for unlawful conduct, including brutal use of force, violent repression and unlawful arrests of protesters. Police forces are meant to exercise restraint and actively help facilitate the right to protest. Instead police brutality often leads to tragic consequences and those responsible face little accountability.
In June 2022, four people were killed after police fired shots at protestors in the Masimba area of Kajiado County, when people took to the streets to protest the authorities’ inaction over the rising number of wild animals’ attacks. The investigation by the Independent Policing and Oversight Authority is ongoing, but campaigners feel that it might face obstructions and delays.
The research also found that the Kenyan authorities act especially swiftly against protests likely to embarrass the State or mobilise external pressure. In April, Kenyan activist Julius Kamau was violently assaulted by three plain-clothed police officers, for his involvement in the #NjaaRevolution, which saw people protesting against the rising cost of living. Four other protesters were subsequently arrested and held for simply exercising their rights.
Mugambi Kiai, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19 East Africa, said:
‘The right to protest is at the very core of our struggle for freedom; it is through the right to protest that we have enlarged our democracy and the enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms and rights under our Bill of Rights.’
On Saba Saba Day, the #FreeToProtest campaign is calling on the Kenyan government to implement the 2010 Constitution and adhere to Kenya’s international obligations to uphold and safeguard the right to protest. Specifically, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa is calling for:
- The government to abolish mandatory notification of protest, to create a safe and enabling environment for people to exercise the right and to protect and facilitate planned as well as spontaneous protests
- The government and police service to ensure full training for all police and law-enforcement officers in rights-based handling of protest and to stop the practice of forcefully dispersing peaceful protest
- The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution to investigate and prosecute officers responsible for disproportionate use of force against protesters
- The government and police service to cease the arrest and detention of individuals solely on the basis of their exercise of the right to freedom of assembly
- The government to ensure adequate resourcing and political support for accountability mechanisms, particularly the IPOA
- The the judiciary to ensure justice for victims of police brutality
The #FreeToProtest campaign in Kenya will aim to sensitize members of the public on their right to protest through community forums and storytelling. It will engage with the media to encourage more positive reporting on protests to avoid perpetuating negative perceptions around the right.
ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa will also run consultations with various government agencies responsible for enabling the right to protest, including the police, the judiciary and other oversight agencies such as IPOA.
Kenya ranked 68 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.