Journalists Caught in Crossfire of Kenya Smack Down

The first lady of Kenya, Lucy Kibaki, slapped an official across the face in front of hundreds of guests and journalists at a public event Wednesday. But there will be no film at 11 of this most undiplomatic incident.

In fact, there's not a single photo or YouTube video to show. Why? Because security officials confiscated the cameras of journalists at the event, forcing them to erase all footage of what's being called "the slap heard around the world."

"It's not everyday that the first lady slaps someone in public," said Joseph Odindo, group managing editor of Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper. "But it was a public event. Everyone saw it. Even without pictures we are still able to describe what happened."

According to the Daily Nation and other local media, the slap occurred at a Kenyan Independence Day celebration after the unnamed official introduced Mrs. Kibaki by the name of "Wambui," who is widely believed in Kenya to be President Mwai Kibaki's second wife.

In front of diplomats, journalists and hundreds of guests, Mrs. Kibaki reportedly stood up, walked across the stage and slapped the master of ceremonies before he finished his introduction speech.

Then, according to local media, the president's security agents gathered all the journalists and forced them to delete any digital photographs and erase all video footage of the incident, an action Odindo called "outrageous."

"Taking our film is a serious violation of our freedom of press," Odindo told ABC News. Odindo said the Nation Media Group, which owns the Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper, has filed a formal complaint with the country's Media Council, an advisory board monitoring the Kenyan government's relations with journalists.

"We think it's an abuse of power by the security officers. It happened in full view of the guests and we definitely had the right to be there and film it," Odindo says.

The incident was not the first time Mrs. Kibaki has been criticized for using violence and squelching the press. In 2005, she stormed Nation Media Group offices with her bodyguards and demanded that a reporter who had written a negative article about her be arrested.

When the reporter refused to come forward, she slapped a cameraman filming the confrontation. The reporter was never arrested and the footage of her outburst was repeatedly aired on Kenyan television.

Government spokesman Dr. Alfred Mutua criticized the first lady's actions yesterday. "It was wrong to be called another person's name, but a name is a name," Dr. Mutua told ABC News. "It was wrong of the first lady to behave the way she behaved. It's not right. She's portraying a very bad image to women in Kenya."

Mutua said the security agents were just "doing their jobs" in protecting the president and the first lady, but said that the journalists have the right to protest the action. "The journalists should demand justice in the courts. They have that right under freedom of the press," said Dr. Mutua who added that "the person who was slapped should have pressed charges for assault."

Kenya's constitution explicitly protects freedom of the press, and is one of the only Sub-Saharan African countries to do so, according to Tom Rhodes, the Africa programming coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Kenya is in the forefront of press freedom in Sub Saharan Africa and any sort of incident like this should be condemned," said Rhodes. "The actions of the first lady should be public knowledge."

Still both Rhodes and Odindo said the censorship on journalists in this case was an "isolated incident." Odindo said the paper has been covering the upcoming elections critically for the last five months without any interference from the government, and says he would not be surprised to see a chorus of editorials condemning Mrs. Kibaki's behavior and the way it was handled. "I think we have unlimited freedom of the press," said Odindo. "It's a question of how it's exercised."

Rhodes sees the confrontation with the journalists as more of a "knee-jerk reaction" by rogue security agents than a sign that the Kenyan government doesn't value independent journalism. "Kenyans have the right to see these pictures; however it was an isolated incident and does not reflect on Kenya's press freedom record."