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Kenyan government says Obama's Gridiron speech no joke

 

President Barack Obama’s remarks at last weekend’s Gridiron Dinner were no laughing matter for at least one country.

A Kenyan government official said Obama made a “disturbing” comment last Saturday when he thanked foreign journalists who have risked their lives working in dangerous places like Syria and Kenya.

In a somber moment during the largely joked-filled annual event, the president praised reporters who have uncovered corruption around the world.

“They've risked everything to bring us stories from places like Syria and Kenya, stories that need to be told,” he said.

But Kenya's Permanent Secretary for Information and Communications Bitange Ndemo released a statement Thursday calling on the president to correct his statement. 

"President Obama's suggestion that Kenya is an unsafe country for foreign journalists is not only inaccurate, but exceedingly disturbing given the long and warm relations between our two nations,” he said.

Ndemo also took exception to the president citing Kenya alongside Syria — a country that has been engaged in civil war for more than two years that has cost thousands of civilian lives.

"Kenya calls on President Obama to correct his statement, and recognize Kenya's commitment to ensuring a free and safe environment for both local and foreign journalists and to keeping an unfettered flow of information to the Kenyan public," read the statement.

Late Thursday, a White House official responded: "The President's statement was meant to commend the work of journalists operating around the globe.  Journalists, both international and domestic, played an important role in reporting on Kenya's recent elections.  We recognize and commend the press freedoms enshrined in Kenya's constitution. Obviously, the situations in Syria and Kenya are quite different."

The Kenyan official also cited the country’s recent “peaceful election” earlier this month as proof that Obama spoke inaccurately. The east African country has thus far remained peaceful following elections, unlike five years earlier where violence in the wake of a disputed presidential race claimed 1,000 Kenyans and left 600,000 displaced.   

The U.S State Department did, however, issue a travel warning in late February urging U.S. citizens in Kenya to avoid polling places and political demonstrations, highlighting the potential of terrorist activity, kidnappings and violent crimes.

NBC's Shawna Thomas contributed to this report