U.S.'s Tillerson says Kenya should not stifle media, threaten courts

A military aide rushes in to straighten Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta's jacket pocket as he and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stand for photographers after their meeting at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

NAIROBI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday in Nairobi that he had shared his concerns with Kenya's president about the importance of democracy and said the government should not stifle the media and threaten the courts.

The Kenyan government shut down three television channels in January on the day opposition leader Raila Odinga took a symbolic presidential oath, then defied a court order to switch them back on. The stations had planned to live-stream the oath.

"We believe that there are actions that need to be taken in Kenya and that they need to correct certain actions like shutting down independent TV stations and threatening the independence of the courts," Tillerson told a news conference in the Kenyan capital.

"I know Kenya takes these matters seriously. A free and independent media is essential for safeguarding democracy and giving all Kenyans confidence in their government."

Asked at the news conference with Tillerson if Kenya could call itself a democracy in light of restrictions appeared intended to stifle dissent, Kenya's foreign affairs minister, Monica Juma, said that "the notion that there is a restriction of the media is not backed by fact or reality.

She said that only "three of more than 10s" of TV stations were temporarily shut down. The three stations taken off air reach the majority of viewers in the country.

In September, after Kenya's Supreme Court overturned President Uhuru Kenyatta's election victory and ordered a new poll, Kenyatta dismissed the judges as "wakora", meaning "crooks" in Swahili. He also said the country had a "problem" with its judiciary that needed to be fixed.

Tillerson, the top U.S. diplomat, praised Kenyatta and opposition leader Odinga for meeting on Friday and pledging to bring their people together after last year's contentious and bloody elections.

"All the credit" for the meeting went to the Kenyan political leaders, Tillerson said, in response to a question as to whether the U.S. had a role in organising it.

As expected, Tillerson also emphasised the U.S. security partnership with Kenya and what he called "our shared fight against terrorism". He said he would pay his respects on Saturday in Nairobi to victims of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The bombings killed 224 people.

He also recognised the 4,000 Kenyan troops fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission AMISOM.

Analysts say the Trump administration has focused mainly on security concerns in Africa at a time when China, Turkey and other nations are ramping up diplomatic and business links.

"The U.S. is no longer the dominant external actor in Africa, and must compete for influence not only with China, but a host of other, increasingly assertive, states pursuing their own agendas, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Japan and India," said EJ Hogendoorn, deputy Africa program director at the International Crisis Group think tank.

At Tillerson's two news conferences on Friday, in Djibouti and Nairobi, the typical arrangement for news conferences involving the secretary and his counterpart in the host country were changed, American reporters travelling with Tillerson said.

Typically, reporters with Tillerson and from the host country get to ask the same number of questions. But at both news conferences on Friday, the U.S. journalists were allowed only one question while local journalists in the two countries asked multiple questions.

U.S. officials did not intervene to allow the U.S. journalists to ask questions, according to a Reuters witness.

(Reporting By Maggie Fick, editing by Larry King)