MARIE STOPES KENYA

Ann Kioko is a big deal in the Kenyan pro-life community. The 32-year-old is the Africa Campaigns Director for CitizenGo, an international online petition platform pledged to “defend and promote life, family and liberty.” In one of her most stunning successes in this role, she led a campaign which convinced the government of Kenya to suspend the operations of Marie Stopes Kenya (MSK) in late 2018.

MSK calls itself the “the leading provider of sexual and reproductive health services in Kenya.” It’s no secret, however, that this is a euphemism for “the leading provider of abortion in Kenya.” That abortion is illegal in Kenya seems to be worth less than a roomful of rat droppings to the organisation.

In fact, in 2019, MSK got so brazen about its abortion business that it ran a salacious ad campaign on local radio stations to promote it. Ann’s successful petition distilled the resulting public outcry.

Now MSK is fighting back.

Though the government, almost certainly under foreign pressure, quietly reinstated its operational license a month after suspending it, the episode dented the organisation’s reputation and, consequently, sent its abortion business into a spin. It has yet to recover. Unsurprisingly, MSK blames Ann for its woes. It is now suing her for defamation and seeks to have her stopped from publicly mentioning its name or its abortion business.

Despite its peculiarities, the case already fits a tired pattern. MSK’s lawyers have skipped multiple hearings on what Ann says are very flimsy grounds. On the few occasions when they’ve had the decency to show up, they’ve been more likely to be so underprepared as to precipitate adjournments.

If nothing else, this betrays their willingness to drag out the case and wear out Anne and her defence team.

Let’s assume, however, that the suit sincerely seeks only its stated goal, that is, to get Ann gagged. In this reading, MSK does not deny Ann’s assertion that it illegally provides abortion services. It merely wants her right to make this assertion taken away. But this immediately raises crucial questions about freedom of speech, not just for Ann, but for all Kenyans.

Kenya’s Constitution recognises and protects every Kenyan’s freedom of speech, only venturing to proscribe “propaganda for war,” “incitement to violence,” “hate speech,” and “advocacy of [certain forms of] hatred.” It goes on to admonish, almost like a motherly schoolteacher would to cantankerous kids in the playground, that “in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, every person shall respect the rights and reputation of others.”

But it doesn’t take legal erudition to realise that, were the court to gag Ann in accord with MSK’s request, it would very likely violate the constitution. Seeking information, gathering signatures, briefing the press, testifying to regulators, and campaigning against the illegal activities of an organisation operating on the public’s mandate are exactly the sort of pursuits the constitution empowers a free citizen to do.

No doubt MSK is also aware of this. Perhaps it even realises it cannot win the case on merit.

Therefore, MSK’s lawsuit turns out to be a blatant effort to weaponize the judicial system’s processes to harass and frustrate Ann into silence. Even worse, it seems to be designed as a warning to anyone else who would dare speak out against MSK’s violations of Kenyan law and lethal disregard for the lives of numerous unborn Kenyans, which continue to this day.

If this is true, then the lawsuit constitutes a most outrageous abuse of the judicial system. It betrays a cynical disrespect for Kenya’s constitutional protections for freedom of speech, along with the sensibilities of the people of Kenya regarding the sanctity of every human life, which they have reiterated at every opportunity. The court must repudiate this show of contempt in the strongest possible terms.

For her part, Ann remains unbowed. She sees right through the tactics. “This is a matter of public interest,” she told me over the phone, while preparing for yet another hearing. “They are breaking the law with impunity and now want to intimidate me into shutting up about it. I’m not going to keep silent.”

She’s prepared to appear in court as many times as it takes to vindicate herself.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.