Integrating journalists into the human rights defenders agenda

  Samwel Mohochi writes about the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) that was set up in western Africa and which brought together journalists, activists and others working in the field of human rights. He argues that it brought significant advantages, particularly in the quality of reporting and the support for journalists.  

Samwel Mohochi is an advocate at Mohochi & Company Advocates in Kenya.

The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) is a national membership organisation that aims to champion the safety, security and well-being of human rights defenders (HRDs). It was established in November 2007, and registered as a charitable trust. 

The NCHRD was a result of commitments made in the Entebbe Plan of Action of 2005, in which various members undertook to organise national coalitions in the six member countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. It serves as a network of human rights defenders.

The broad membership of the Defenders Coalition (the NCHRD in Kenya) includes Kenyan human rights organisations, human rights defender groupings, community-based groups and  faith-based groups working in the field to protect human rights. The mixed membership enabled individual journalists to become members of the coalition, and this led to enriched human rights reporting. The Coalition became particularly relevant in trying to protect human rights defenders who faced recriminations.

At the inception of the Coalition a general plan of action was developed in a participatory manner, specifically developing proactive and reactive interventions that included:

The Coalition was to maintain a skeleton secretariat while working with members and elected representatives in the regions.

In early December 2008 Kenya held its general and presidential elections, resulting in a disputed presidential-election result. This led to general anarchy, and extrajudicial killings by state officials (over 400 shootings are documented). Another 1 000 more killings were perpetrated by non-state actors, and widespread displacement of over 300 000 people, wanton looting and destruction of property occurred. 

Supporters of the Kenyan opposition presidential candidate protests in the Mathare slums of Nairobi on August 9, 2017, a day after the presidential election. (Photo: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images)

Human rights defenders intervened between January and March 2018, documenting the atrocities that occurred. At the height of the violence, prominent human rights defenders with visibility at national level, and who were public commentators providing alternative opinion in mainstream media, came under severe attack. Many received death threats, and members of their families were targeted. Attacks were widespread on social media platforms and in person. These ranged from mild verbal threats, to disruptions (for example, of news photo exhibitions), to extremely life-threatening and in some cases deadly actual attacks on defenders. The Coalition immediately intervened by offering temporary internal and external relocations to safe houses, and provided support to defenders at risk.

When a political settlement was reached in March 2008, a secret military operation was ordered in the Mount Elgon region of western Kenya to deal with an insurgency by the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF). The mountainous area was sealed off from the mainstream media, with only a few members of the Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA – a member of the Coalition) able to continue the reporting of the atrocities. A number of journalists faced recriminations, and the Coalition had to intervene in an attempt to ameliorate the situation.

In a file photo, residents of Nairobi’s Kibera slum follows the presidential election while awaiting official results in October 2017. (Patrick Meinhardt/AFP via Getty Images)

The existence of the Coalition resulted in improved reporting by journalists on atrocities and human rights issues in the area. It also resulted in improved support and protection of journalists and other HRDs. Human rights violations were better and more widely reported, ensuring that overall case reporting on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, atrocities, group violence and other human rights violations could be documented more accurately and reported to the International Criminal Court process of 2010 to 2018.

In 2016-2017, Section 29 of Kenya’s Information and Communication Act (KICA) was increasingly being used to target bloggers and defenders of human rights. HR Ds, journalists and activists who challenged senior government officials at national and county level with respect to accountability, integrity and corruption were often targeted and Section 29 used to silence them.

This law was deliberately being used to persecute the HRDs, who were at times violently arrested. The Coalition had to rapidly secure their release on bail, and provide legal representation and general support to ensure their safety. The coalition was ultimately involved in the litigation that successfully challenged the constitutionality of Section 29 of KICA. The High Court in Kenya subsequently declared Section 29 unconstitutional.

The coalition strengthened the ability of journalists and defenders to use freedom of information requests effectively, broadened and deepened their ability to do impactful investigative journalism, and made the space for defenders and journalists slightly safer. 

The coalition further worked to set agreed standards for reporting on elections. These were developed jointly with the Media Council of Kenya. 

In a system where media houses and platforms are often controlled by owners, and at the mercy of the state, who are key advertisers on those platforms, it is particularly important for the Coalition to support independent journalists and platforms. The Coalition also works for the improvement of remuneration for journalists.

The hybrid membership of the Coalition has ensured a network of HRDs and journalists who work in this area. It has connected hundreds of freelancers and independent activists to each other, and to available resources and support systems. It has enriched the human rights agenda, and offers immediately improved protection to the most vulnerable; and it has made wider sharing and distribution of information possible. 

Some lessons learnt include:

Another main advantage of the Coalition is that it opens its membership to a broad range of actors who stand in  defence of human rights, including minority communities, labour movement unions, community-based groups, national-based groups and individuals who can demonstrate human rights work in the community.

The National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders has and continues to remain alive to its niche; which is to only intervene in matters of protection for HRDs, to maintain a lean secretariat, to tap into and utilise the expertise of its members on a pro bono basis at times, and to make more proactive interventions for prevention – which appears to have strengthened the Coalition and given it the relevant visibility, thereby earning it its institutional credibility in Kenya.

1 March 2021