Voice of Kenya(tta)

Michael Onsando
29 March ,2016

“If this can happen to GADO, who can’t they go after?”

I’m worried. So we’re going to talk about media freedom again. Now, I understand that, given digital media and the many changing ways news travels it is harder to keep track of what is true or false; what works and what doesn’t. But it is of a worrying level of concern just how good this current government has become at silencing dissent before it has had a chance to voice itself. More worrying is the subtlety with which this is happening. It’s like they have become adept at catching things before they make a ripple.

Or perhaps, controlling any ways in which ripples are formed.

Since the British East African Broadcasting Corporation began in 1929 there have been many, often successful, attempts to control the media. By the time the first president Kenyatta was going into power he quickly nationalized the media. In doing this he ensured he could control what went into and, more importantly, out of the Voice of Kenya. Symbolically he basically controlled the voice of the country. Moi was not much better. Under the 24 years of his rule saw a large number of human rights abuses of which banning critical media was a large part. I use these two examples to explain that, given their influences, I’m very wary that the jubilee government and, particularly, the president, is capable of imagining a different way to approach the media.

And with each happening my concern grows.

Take GADO as an example. After working for 23 years with the nation his contract was cancelled after a ominous “they” reached a decision.  Dennis Galava, fired from the nation for writing this editorial, wrote an affidavit outlining how it happened. The affidavit itself reads like something from a novel where the protagonist was doomed from the outset. Formal procedures became cover ups for what was really happening. A section of particular interest reads:

“my questions were not taken well. A panelist offered that he would be more cautious if he were in my shoes. Here I stood, he added, both having upset Kenya’s president and the Aga Khan, and risked the business of the paper and yet I also stood seeking justification rather than groveling for mercy.”

(full affidavit here)

Take note of the language here. The problem shifted from whether or not the article itself was factual or, misrepresented any facts in anyway and became who the article had offended. In offending these people Galava had done something seen as unjustifiable. Worthy of his sacking.

Even as I use offend here I use it with a questions Teju Cole asks:

“..as a writer, I cherish the right to offend, and I support that right in other writers—but what was being excluded in this framing?”

Which is to say I understand that even this freedom to offend exists within certain limitations and ethical boundaries, and I’m  still puzzled as to what ethical boundaries were crossed in the editorial. And how badly they must have been crossed for Galava to have just been fired.

And it’s not just mainstream media that has been affected.

Misusing a licenced communication gadget (Section 29 of the Information and communications act) has been used to track bloggers in Kenya since its inception. Of recent interest is Yassin Juma, who was arrested for sharing pictures of KDF soldiers on his blog. Or maybe Nancy Mbindalah who, in 2014, was arrested for writing that a hospital had been disconnected from a water supply, only to be saved by resident’s pleas. Many more exist in this category and have been analysed by Brenda Wambui a year ago here.

But one of the most frustrating parts of all this is when we, who should see what is being done, continue to side with those perpetuating this same thinking. As Macharia Gaitho puts it:

“Neither President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, nor Cord leaders Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, and Moses Wetang’ula are national leaders and patriots. They are simply leaders of ethnic political formations who thrive on mobilising their communities and groupings against others.

They play up the ethnically divisive “tyranny of numbers” and “41 versus 1” stratagems and thereby prime their supporters to hate and demonise other Kenyans as enemies to be isolated and neutralised. Now, when somebody points out the dangers we face approaching the elections under such a dangerous culture, some idiots call for his arrest.”


In this article he was talking about the hashtag #ArrestNdii. This hashtag caught me by surprise in many ways. Surely, given how the state is treating the media, citizens were not also trying to destroy the few dissenting voices left? The only real comfort in this thought is knowing that twitter is not the country, neither is it representative of as large a demographic as we’d like it to be. Still, it is growing and that there is already a lot of control happening there (don’t even get me started on Itumbi and the rest) is bothering.

But none of this is new right? And, since it has been going on since 1929, it shouldbe more important to see how well we’ve done since then. Save for changing the faces, we haven’t. Kenya has dropped from being 75th in 2002 to 100th in 2015 in press freedom. A trend that seems set to continue this year. Uganda, who we were all criticizing for how they handled their recent elections, lies at 97th. Further, anti-media legislation has shown up severally under this regime with a lot passing through the media bill and the most recent attempt stopped by National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi.

So yes, I’m worried. I’m worried that, as Nanjala Nyabola puts it:

“There are many people in this country who don’t understand how important journalism is and the impact that it has on how we see ourselves as a nation and what prospects we imagine are possible for us in the future… what are the threats to journalism today? I think that’s the first one that many people a) don’t see the importance of journalism and b) aren’t scared when they see the threat.”

And, even with all this data available we still claim that the media is independent. Is it really that we aren’t scared, or that we don’t know how to stop it? I don’t know, but I know that I’m worried. And with each happening my concern grows.

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