Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a social media campaign designed to smear and intimidate Kenya’s leading independent, privately-owned media group, Nation Media Group (NMG), and calls on the authorities to identify and sanction those responsible.

Thousands of messages with the #NationMediaGarbage hashtag began circulating on Twitter on 6 June to the point that by the next day it was one of Kenya’s ten most shared hashtags. The blitz was launched by a group of activists who make no secret of their support for President Uhuru Kenyatta.

According to NMG’s Daily Nation newspaper, around a dozen people are behind the campaign, in which NMG media outlets are being accused of corruption and publishing fake news without any evidence to support the claims. As well as attacking NMG editorial decisions, the campaign is also posting the photos of journalists who write news stories or columns that criticize or reflect badly on the government.

When contacted by the Daily Nation, the president’s chief of staff denied any link between the authorities and these online trolls.

“We deplore this kind of cyber-attack, which has the sole aim of intimidating and maligning journalists working for this respected media group,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This targeted campaign shows that Africa is not being spared the new kinds of threats to independent news production. If the authorities are sincere when they deny any link with this offensive, they have no choice but to launch an investigation in order to clearly identify those responsible, especially as some of those involved in the campaign are not hiding their support for – if not their links with – the ruling party.”

RSF has learned that two activists posted the first tweets in the campaign against NMG. One was Francis Mwangi, who shows himself beside President Kenyatta on his Facebook page. He often posts photos of the president and proclaims his successes with the #KeepFightingMrPresident hashtag.

The other is Polycarp Hinga, who has more than 36,000 Twitter followers and claims to be an activist in charge of the ruling partys communication. RSF contacted them in order to ask about the campaign’s origins and aims, but was no given any explanation.

report published by RSF last year shed light on the scale of attacks of this kind that are waged with the aim of undermining the production of honest and independent news coverage. The report detailed cases of online harassment and campaigns by troll armies against media outlets and journalists in 32 countries.

After falling four places, Kenya is ranked 100th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.