It Was Like a Scene from Hell - Interview with Kenyan Journalist Robert Wanyonyi
‘A group of policemen who were clashing with the villagers saw me and shouted: “That’s the reporter! Get him!” I heard more than three shots whizz past me as I ducked towards the vehicle..’.(Robert Wanyonyi)
Robert Wanyonyi is a Kenyan journalist who reports for The Standard newspaper and the Kenya Television Network (KTN). In 2011 he was a recipient of the Human Rights Watch/Hellman Hammett award, and is a journalist to whom PEN International has provided assistance.
On 5 December 2011, Wanyonyi was called to report from the scene of an alleged robbery at the Namang`ofulo coffee factory in Sirisia, western Kenya. Kenya’s black market trade in coffee is a lucrative business and the theft had left two dead. When the police arrived at the scene, events quickly spun out of control, and Wanyonyi was witness to an alleged massacre carried out by local police officers. His reports on the incident appeared in print and on TV. As a result of his reporting, he began receiving death threats. He was forced to go into hiding with his family.
What follows is Wanyonyi’s account of the experience, as told to Cathal Sheerin of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International:
I was in my office in Kakamega, in the western part of Kenya. An informer rang to report that there had been theft of dry coffee from the Namang’ofulo Coffee Factory, about 120 kilometers away. He said that he feared that there might have been deaths.
I immediately left my office and drove to the scene. When I arrived, a large group of people [in the hundreds] had gathered around the factory.
On the ground lay five bodies. One person had been badly injured by the locals and was in a critical state, but he could still talk.
Thieves had struck at night and had killed three night guards in an attempt to steal 100 bags of coffee. Villagers who had responded to the guards’ calls of distress managed to kill two of the thugs and recover forty bags of coffee.
[When] the District Commissioner (DC) arrived, the injured thug started accusing him of hiring him in to do [the DC’s] dirty business.
I asked the thug to identify himself and his dead friends on camera; this made the DC and his fellow provincial administrators very uncomfortable. The thug admitted that he and his two dead friends were Administration police officers and that they had been sent by the DC to steal the coffee from the factory.
On hearing this admission, the DC removed his pistol and shot the still-alive thug in the head, killing him on the spot.
This incensed the villagers who became rowdy and started throwing stones at the DC chanting: ‘Thief! Thief!’
By this time, police officers in their hundreds had swarmed the area. I was ordered to stop video-recording and to leave the scene immediately; I defied the order and carried on with my work.
The situation had become so chaotic. More and more villagers were pouring into the factory to try to stop the police from collecting the dead bodies: incidents of coffee theft had become rampant in the area and the residents wanted to vent their anger.
Skirmishes were occurring and I overheard the DC order his officers to open fire. Police bullets mowed down another five villagers as I recorded from the protection of the bushes.
One of the dead villagers was shot just three metres from where I was hiding and I managed to record it on camera. I also collected over forty spent cartridges, including those that had been used in killing the victim beside me.
It was such a horrible scene – like one straight from hell.
I dashed towards where I had parked my vehicle. A group of policemen who were clashing with the villagers saw me and shouted: ‘That’s the reporter! Get him!’ I heard more than three shots whizz past me as I ducked towards the vehicle.
I opened the door but one police officer was still pursuing me and he managed to hurl a smoke grenade into the vehicle. I hastily opened all windows, and, still choking from the fumes, I drove away from the scene at top speed, almost hitting people who were scattered all-over the road.
I tried to avoid using main roads. A friendly police officer had rung me to say that the DC had ordered traffic policemen to barricade all major roads, arrest me and confiscate all the equipment and evidence that I had.
After driving for about twenty kilometres, I saw a group of residents on the road and explained my predicament. They were very supportive and one of them offered to guide me to safety through poorly-maintained alternative routes.
After about five hours I managed to arrive back in town safely.
As I was editing the story, I received the first anonymous call.
(During the call Wanyoni was invited to meet with the District Commissioner. He was told that if he brought the video tape and the cartridges that he’d collected at the scene of the killing, he’d receive an award of Ksh. 500,000, approximately US$ 6,000.)
I told the caller to inform the DC that Ksh. 500,000 could not, and never would, buy off the lives of eleven people. I told him to wait to watch the news on television, and to read it in the papers the following day. He replied: ‘And you will die!’
I went ahead and finished the story which was aired the same day on KTN Television in the news bulletins. The following day, I published the story, plus pictures of the killings in The Standard newspaper.
I started receiving anonymous threatening calls warning me to stop writing about the coffee theft and to cease investigating the involvement of government officials and politicians. However, this did not deter me…
(Two days later, Wanyonyi returned to the village.)
[Whilst driving] I realized that I was being trailed by two vehicles. One attempted to overtake me from the wrong side of the road and that set the alarm bells ringing. I immediately realized that I was in danger and accelerated. One of the vehicles pursued me until I arrived at a hotel in Bungoma town, where I tried to escape them. Among those pursuing me were the Western Province of Kenya Provincial Criminal Investigations Officer, the Upper Western Regional Commissioner, and the South District Commissioner. I managed to persuade the hotel security staff to sneak me out via the private gate of the hotel, and I drove back to my house.
Upon reaching home, I found my family very frightened. My wife informed me that strange people had been at the gate and two of them had fired some shots in the air calling out my name. She said the men appeared to be policemen.
I decided to move my family to lodgings in town and we slept there. I tried to keep calm in spite of the questioning looks from my children.
The following day I published a full-page story about what I had unearthed about the [coffee] theft. I mentioned officers potentially involved in the theft and the killings of innocent people, including the DC.
I also published pictures of how the police executed people in cold blood as the DC stood and gave orders. The same day, I also aired another big story about the incident on television.
Due to my evidence of the involvement of government officials in the theft and killings, friendly Members of Parliament took the matter to the floor in parliament, forcing an embarrassed government to suspend the District Commissioner, as well as twenty-two police officers.
Though it was a triumph for media freedom in Kenya, I still feel threatened as the affected officers might still be planning to pursue me for exposing their activities to the world. I am not sure about tomorrow. I am constantly watching my back and I have no security of my own.
What motivates me as a journalist is, and has always been, [a desire] to turn myself into a vessel which the voiceless can use to speak to the world regardless of the circumstances. In Kenya, threats to press freedom still exist. The political system is still not ready to allow journalists to access important information. When we try to ask for information as a basic right, we are branded spies or foreigners. Many political leaders view journalists as people who pry in their secret lives and they end up threatening any journalist who tries to expose the rot in society. Many journalists with faint hearts have ended up staying silent in the face of ills committed by those in the government.
Robert Wanyonyi has recently set up the Media For Justice Organization-Kenya, a free expression NGO which aims to document threats against the media in the region and to provide assistance to journalists in danger. For more information, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org