In 2008 refugee journalists in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, set up KANERE, a news reporting project 'to counter the monopoly on information enjoyed by humanitarian organisations that largely control access to and information about refugee camps.' They believed that a refugee free press could ‘open up new spaces for public debate and action on refugee encampment.’ But KANERE’s unwillingness to allow aid agencies to play a role in the publication appears to be putting both the future of the project and the safety of its team in jeopardy, as this background note outlines.
OCTOBER 2008: KANERE LAUNCHED
Refugee journalists in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, began work on the Kakuma News Reflector (KANERE), a refugee news reporting project. The journalists launched the publication with the intention that it would be owned by refugees – not edited by humanitarian staff – and would reach an international audience. The goal of the news forum was not merely to inform, but also to counter the monopoly on information enjoyed by humanitarian organisations that largely control access to and information about refugee camps. They believed a refugee free press could potentially open new spaces for public debate and action on refugee encampment.
In collaboration with a US Fulbright scholar, Bethany Ojalehto, the journalists developed Kakuma News Reflector, an online news blog. While only one KANERE journalist has experience as a professional reporter, several writers hold advanced university degrees in related fields, while others studied journalism in their home countries before being interrupted by refugee flight. Together, the journalists established a monthly system of news reporting, pooling their skills for the investigation and reporting of events around the camp.
22 DECEMBER 2008: FIRST ISSUE PUBLISHED
The maiden issue of the Kakuma News Reflector was published online on 22 December 2008.
JANUARY 2009: UNHCR AND NGOS RAISE CONCERNS
Soon after online publication of the first KANERE issue, it became clear that local humanitarian agencies did not fully support the refugee free press. In meetings with KANERE during January 2009, local UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) officials cited concerns over confidentiality of information, protection of refugee identities, and ethical standards of reporting. In response to these concerns, KANERE deleted two sensitive articles from their first issue and ceased to use refugees’ real names or journalist bylines in their publication.
27 JANUARY 2009: REGISTRATION AS CBO HALTED
The district officer confiscated KANERE’s registration forms and refused to release them until KANERE brought a letter of support from UNHCR. The relationship between KANERE and humanitarian agencies grew tense when KANERE’s attempt to register as a community-based organisation was halted by local government officials.
JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2009: INTERNATIONAL PUBLICITY
The news blog soon attracted international attention and received thousands of hits from viewers around the globe. The venture was profiled in a number of reports by human rights organisations and news media, and was highlighted at the ICVA Conference in January 2009.
This international attention raised the public profile of KANERE’s work and contributed to tensions with local humanitarian agencies, particularly when a sensitive article was published in Pambazuka News naming names of UNHCR officials, ’Report on KANERE’s progress and challenges’, February 2009).
FEBRUARY 2009: DR EKURU AUKOT VISITS KAKUMA
Dr Ekuru Aukot, a human rights lawyer and then director of Kenyan legal aid group Kituo Cha Sheria, travels to Kakuma to assist KANERE journalists in their struggle to establish the free press. At a joint meeting with KANERE and humanitarian agencies in February 2009, Dr Aukot affirmed that refugees have the right to exercise a free press and cannot be prevented from exercising this right for any reason except those under law. He later summarised this position in an article for KANERE’s news blog (Aukot, 2009).
At this meeting, humanitarian agencies resolved to support KANERE’s registration as a community-based organisation while reaffirming their desire that KANERE be held to the highest standards of ethical reporting. At a subsequent meeting, a UNHCR official invited KANERE to submit a proposal for material assistance from UNHCR and NGOs.
APRIL 2009: KANERE HOLDS ELECTIONS FOR EDITOR/EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
KANERE held elections for a new editor and executive director to take over KANERE in anticipation of Bethany's departure, enabling a smooth transition of editorial duties. An Ethiopian refugee and former second-year journalism student at Addis Ababa University was elected to serve as editor. A Rwandan refugee, school-teacher and distance-learning university student was elected to serve as executive director.
AUGUST 2009: UNHCR OFFICIALS STATE THEY CANNOT SUPPORT KANERE
On 11 August 2009, the KANERE editor met briefly with UNHCR director of the African Bureau, George Okoth-Obbo. This was followed by a meeting with local UNHCR officials on 13 August 2009. At this meeting, it was made clear that humanitarian agencies will only offer support to KANERE if they are allowed to play a role in the news publication. In a letter addressed on behalf of Kakuma humanitarian agencies, UNHCR head of Sub-Office Mohamed Qassim stated that UNHCR ‘cannot support the pure independence’ of a free press that receives the support of ‘relief funds.’
According to the current KANERE editor, ‘I see that UNHCR will want to control our publication and cannot support KANERE's independence.’ Although UNHCR officials have not stated in writing exactly how they intend to be involved in KANERE's publications, the editor reports that in verbal discussions UNHCR officials have mentioned ‘editing our work’ or ‘going through the articles’ before making print copies available for distribution.
10 NOVEMBER 2009: KANERE EDITOR ASSAULTED AND HIS HOUSE DESTROYED
KANERE’s editor was assaulted by his neighbor at around 2:20pm local time at his home. As reported in a Pambazuka News article: ‘On 10 November 2009, I was assaulted by three men known to me in the same community and this case came as turning point when I produced my camera and was taking photos of my burning fence that was stretching towards the house and if it were not for my family friends my house could have been destroyed completely.’
He sustained injuries in the chest, both legs, face and on the neck. The KANERE executive director witnessed the destruction of the editor’s house and the burning ashes of his fence soon after the assault. The case was reported immediately to Kenyan police. The Editor lost his personal video camera, 10,000 Kenya shillings, and his mobile phone was damaged. After the editor finished reporting the incident he returned home, where he was again assaulted by the same group of people. He was taken to camp main hospital by ambulance and police.
The editor believes that the attackers were motivated by issues related to KANERE. He wrote: ‘I just came to learn that the attackers were very aware of our (KANERE's) hostility with NGOs in Kakuma. They stated to me that by writing from the camp, we are blocking their resettlement opportunities! This is strong opposition. They would like to show UNHCR that their community is not supportive of KANERE and me or other journalists, as Jerome (KANERE's executive director) was also harassed for working with me. They stated to me those words, and it clearly looks like a back-up underground as to why the government officials and police did not arrest the perpetrators...These are real life happenings. It indicates that this community is not appreciative of our work for them and for refugees' humanity. They tend to fabricate things here and there in all corners. What is going on now is a very different issue from before. This is the aftermath of strong opposition towards KANERE in the whole of Kakuma Camp.’
The executive director also shared his perspective on the event via email: ‘I am much concerned of the Kanere's integrity and how we go about the challenges. We hear some few individual refugees expressing their negative attitudes towards Kanere in terms of resettlement. Although some UNHCR officer have in some occasions used refugees to destabilise communities, more light should be shed to what happened to Kanere's editor when he was assaulted by his community members. However as we are very limited in investigations so far we cannot tell who motivates them behaving in such manner. There is a need of external investigation to clarify the situation of Kanere as it stands now. One thing that is sure is that UNHCR does not support our reporting operations and they have been having intention to curtail our activities. From my point of view 'Kanere legal papers can unveil the hidden stands of local NGOs/UNHCR.’
11 MARCH 2010: KANERE EDITOR CALLED FOR MEETING WITH LWF SECURITY AND GOVERNMENT OF KENYA
The KANERE editor received a call from the Ethiopian community leader in the afternoon saying he was urgently needed for a meeting with LWF Security and the Kenyan government. The Ethiopian community leader would not explain why the editor was needed, but did say that the atmosphere in the LWF Security Office was tense and the officers seemed angry. The editor requested that the individuals requesting the meeting contact him directly by phone and explain the purpose of the meeting.
The Editor sent this SMS by email to supporters: ‘I received a call that LWF security officer needed Kanere leaders and that the Gov't also have concerns? So were on their bad plans again! Cyber Cafe was closed for now a wk. in fear!’
Shortly afterward, the editor received a phone call from a man who refused to identify himself. He commanded him to come for a meeting at once in the LWF Security Office or the community meeting spot. The editor did not continue the conversation after the man refused to identify himself. He called back twice again but the editor did not pick up.
Later that evening, the Ethiopian community leader told KANERE’s executive director that LWF Security had informed them to use the local refugee community security guards to bring in the Editor by force, if necessary.
The situation remains unclear. We do not know what motivated LWF Security and the government of Kenya to demand this urgent meeting while refusing to inform the editor of the people involved or their reasons for meeting.
17 MARCH 2010: CURRENT SITUATION AND PROBLEMS
1) LACK OF LEGAL PROTECTION/FOLLOW-UP ON INDIVIDUAL CASES WITH KENYAN POLICE:
The editor was assaulted and his house was destroyed due to false beliefs among refugees re: KANERE and resettlement. Although UNHCR is well aware of the situation, they did not follow up on the case. The perpetrators have not been apprehended; they move about freely in the community; AND they continue to harass KANERE staff. Staff cannot frequent their old neighborhood or even attempt to set foot near their old home. When the editor did so recently, the very same perpetrators chased him and again attempted to assault him. The editor was then compelled to file another case of insecurity with the police; but both cases have languished with the government of Kenya police records and nothing has been done.
2) COMMUNITY INSECURITY ARISING FROM RUMORS OF UNHCR RESETTLEMENT:
The false beliefs among refugees about UNHCR relations with KANERE (in particular, their bearing on other refugees' resettlement claims) need to be actively addressed by UNHCR; especially as these false beliefs are creating conditions of insecurity for individual refugees living in the camp.
3) KANERE'S LEGAL REGISTRATION AS CBO:
Although head of Sub-Office Mohamed Qassim verbally agreed to write a letter of support on KANERE's behalf to local government officials in KANERE’s joint meeting with Dr Aukot, this was never done. Qassim later provided the letter of explanation for why UNHCR could not support a ‘fully independent’ refugee press. The continued limbo of KANERE's non-registered status (while legally irrelevant, as refugees do have the right to exercise a free press) puts the journalists at risk of heightened misperceptions among refugee communities; it also engenders perpetual conflict between KANERE and NGOs/UNHCR who claim they cannot work with an ‘underground operation.’ More urgently, it may place KANERE editor in a compromised position with local police who are attempting to ‘meet with him’ and have insinuated that they will use force to bring him to their meetings.
LINKS TO PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THIS ISSUE:
- January 2009, Pambazuka News: Support KANERE for an independent refugee press.
- Feb 2009, Pambazuka: Report on KANERE’s progress and challenges
- Oct 2009, SID: Refugee free press struggling to remain afloat and independent
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