YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Kenya’s bishops have objected to a media shutdown in the country following the a self-declared ‘inauguration’ of Raila Odinga as “the people’s president,” following his defeat in last year’s elections.

The government suspended the four major television stations in the country on Jan. 30 after they announced plans to air the symbolic ceremony, which took place later the same day.

A statement issued Feb. 2 and signed by the Chairman of the Kenya Bishops’ Conference, Homa Bay Bishop Philip Anyolo, said the government’s shutdown of the country’s major news channels are “unconstitutional” and a direct affront to freedom of expression.

“We wish to categorically state that shutting down of the media houses, does not augur well for the freedom of expression and press in the country,” the statement reads.

“It is a retrogressive and deliberate effort toward eroding the positive steps the country and her people have laid down in the Constitution as a social contract,” they said.

The government kept the broadcasters off the air despite a High Court ruling ordering them to end the ban.

The government move drew international condemnation, with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights calling on the government to “respect and implement the judicial decision,” and the U.S. State Department issuing a statement saying it was “deeply concerned by the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media” and urging Kenya “to respect freedom of expression and implement court orders calling for the restoration of television broadcasts.”

Two of the broadcasters were back on air on Feb. 5, but the other two are still not on air.

The bishops said they were ready to start a process of national dialogue in order to heal the political divides now plaguing the nation, noting that as a Church, their role is to promote peace and justice in society.

Odinga has disputed President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in a presidential re-run that he boycotted.

Kenyatta was declared the winner of the original Aug. 8, 2017 poll, but his victory was annulled due to electoral malpractices, and the courts ordered a re-run of the election on Oct. 26.

Despite originally welcoming the court’s decision, Odinga refused to participate in the second election, maintaining he won the original poll. Kenyatta then won in a landslide.

Since Odinga’s unrecognized inauguration ceremony, the government has cracked down on the opposition, and on Tuesday opposition member Miguna Miguna was charged with “being present and consenting to the administration of an oath to commit a capital offense, namely treason.”

Several other senior members of the opposition have had their passports suspended.

There are fears that the political dispute could lead to an outbreak of the sort of violence which left over 1,300 people dead, and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, after the 2007 election.

Political parties are often supported by particular tribal groups, so election violence often takes on an ethnic dimension.

The government says shutdown in the national interest

The government has justified the shutdown, saying it was in compliance with the rule of law, and was aimed at fostering peace and stability in Kenya.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangí told the media in a statement that “the TV stations will remain closed until a full investigation is carried out into why they disregarded a government order not to broadcast Raila’s inauguration.”

Matiangí even said broadcasting the event could have made the television stations accomplices in treason.

“What was witnessed at Uhuru’s Park was a well-choreographed attempt to subvert or overthrow the legally constituted government of the Republic of Kenya. The government was and is aware of the role of some elements in the media fraternity who participated in furtherance of this illegal act. Their complicity would have led to thousands of deaths of innocent Kenyans,” Mutiangi’s statement reads.

Critics have pointed out that the recent crackdown on the media is one more illustration of the government’s aversion to freedom of the press and its fear of dissent.

Patrick Gathara, a strategic communications consultant, told Quartz that the repressive outburst has shifted attention from the divides within the opposition NASA towards the antipathy to the media.

“The government seems to be shooting itself in the foot or snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” Gathara said.

A history of shackling the press

When Kenyatta came to power in 2013, he introduced the Media Council Bill, which chipped away at the freedom of the press.

In the build up to the 2017 general election, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 said they documented 17 separate incidents in which 23 journalists and bloggers were physically assaulted between 2013 and 2017 by government officials or individuals believed to be aligned to government officials; at least two died under circumstances that may have been related to their work.

The two groups also documented 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country between 2013 and 2017. In addition, police arbitrarily arrested, detained, and later released at least 14 journalists and bloggers.

In condemning the current shutdown, the bishops reminded the authorities that the country’s constitution guarantees the freedom and independence of the media and added that Kenya’s communications authority as established by law is “independent and free of control by government, political or commercial interests in the exercise of its powers.”

Noting that no individual or agency was above the law, the bishops called on the authorities to “adhere to the constitution” and to respect human rights and “fundamental freedoms.”

In the build up to the 2017 disputed elections, the late Bishop Cornelius Korir, the Chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the bishops’ conference who died on Oct. 30 after a series of health problems, had asked religious groups and media to strive to unite Kenyans.

“Religious groups should handle the people well without division. At the same time the media has to handle the voting well without causing chaos. Sometimes we are not aware that we are causing chaos. We don’t want this country to be divided again on ethnicity,” he said before the August election.