March 27, 2018 / 8:07 AM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 3-Kenyan columnists resign accusing government of interference

* Publisher says committed to media freedom

* Police assault journalists at deportation bid

* Court orders opposition figure to be released (Adds statement from Nation Media Group)

By Maggie Fick and Humphrey Malalo

NAIROBI, March 27 (Reuters) - Columnists from Kenya’s top media group resigned en masse on Tuesday accusing it of letting the government interfere with editorial decisions, a charge the publisher denied.

Eight writers of opinion pieces accused management at Nation Media Group (NMG) - which publishes the Daily Nation, Kenya’s most widely read paper - of being too close to the ruling party.

“We refuse to continue to clothe the loss of editorial independence and media freedom at the NMG with respectability,” the columnists said in a statement on Twitter. The said it appeared the executive was able “to influence who works for or contributes” to the papers.

The paper issued a statement later on Tuesday saying it wanted “to reassure our readers and stakeholders that we continue to be committed to media freedom”.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government launched a security crackdown after the legitimacy of his re-election in October was challenged by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

In a separate incident throwing the spotlight on media freedoms, police punched and kicked journalists covering the attempted deportation of an opposition politician at Nairobi airport on Monday.

The opposition politician, Miguna Miguna, was detained on Monday when he returned on a flight from abroad, a month after being deported in a dispute over his dual citizenship amid an escalation of political tensions in Kenya.

After his deportation in February, a court ordered Miguna be granted re-entry but on Monday Nairobi immigration officers refused to accept his Kenyan passport and asked him to surrender his Canadian travel document, his lawyer Nelson Havi said.

An hours-long standoff ensued before several dozen plainclothes officers dragged Miguna onto an Emirates airline plane bound for Dubai, opposition Senator James Orengo said. Miguna was then removed from the airliner and taken to an airport police station.

He remained there on Tuesday without access to his lawyer, Orengo said.

On Tuesday afternoon a Kenyan court ordered that Miguna be released immediately and that he present himself in court on Wednesday. His lawyer Havi said on Tuesday evening that he remained in detention at the airport. “We served the attorney general with a copy of the court order. We demand his release.”

During the scuffle, journalists from the Daily Nation and two private TV stations were assaulted and left bleeding on the ground, according to video footage and one Nation journalist.

“I watched a police officer kick my colleague in the back, then kick his camera, then with his other leg kick in him in the head,” journalist Ibrahim Oruko said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka said the government was just following the law in Miguna’s case. “We have not denied him (entry). We just need him to follow the process like everybody else.”

Kenyatta and Odinga struck an unexpected truce earlier this month after months of elections-related unrest in which 100 people died.

It was unclear whether the dispute over Miguna would affect the reconciliation pact.

Odinga came to the airport to lobby for Miguna to be let back into Kenya, Orengo said. (Reporting by Maggie Fick and Humphrey Malalo Additional reporting by Omar Mohammed Writing by Maggie Fick Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Heavens)

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