On Censorship

Brenda Wambui
25 April ,2017

Ezekiel Mutua’s recent attempt at seeking relevance involved an attempt at regulating social media. Something that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook themselves struggle with, he believes he can do with ease. The Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) CEO wants to stop people from people from using fake names on social media, saying:

To deal with the spectre of fake news, we are proposing a law that will bar people from using fake or pseudo names. If you are not into any mischief why do you want to have a fake facebook account? If you must give your true identity to open an mpesa account, why should you hide behind anonymity to operate a facebook account to insult people or spread falsehoods?

Let’s ignore the false equivalence between MPesa, a financial service, and Facebook, a social network. Let’s even put aside the fact that you have a right to freedom of expression and such a law would be going against your rights. Or the fact that many people have good reason to be anonymous on the internet, their personal safety being the main one. Let us instead talk about censorship, and why people like Mr. Mutua are dangerous for democracy.

Just last year, on 10th October 2016, we woke up to a rightfully outraged creative sector after Mr. Mutua proposed a Film Bill so archaic, the British colonialists would be proud. In KFCB’s hubris, the initial document was labelled the Film, Stage Plays and Publications Act, yet it was still a draft. This bill proposed to give a film classification board the power to regulate, control and censor almost everything in the creative sector.

This draft was intended to be applied to films, stage plays, posters and other media promoting these films and stage plays, broadcast content, commercials, infomercials, documentaries, interviews, programme promotions, programme listings, community service announcements, gaming applications, video on demand, over the top services (such as Netflix and Youtube), outdoor advertising and print publications. Quite ambitious for a colonial relic created to classify films and stage plays.

The bill was also clearly done at Mutua’s behest, with the words “the Chief Executive Officer” appearing 40 times. One would be forgiven for thinking Ezekiel Mutua is the only one that works there. For example: “if the alterations or additions are in a language other than English, and the Chief Executive Officer so requires, a translation thereof into English, certified to the satisfaction of the Chief Executive Officer” or “…or other person appointed for the purpose by the Chief Executive Officer, shall be present at the making of the film, and to such other conditions as the Chief Executive Officer may think fit.”

Ezekiel Mutua began over-reaching as soon as he stepped into his role in 2015. He has the seemingly unending capacity to pick fights with anyone. He had an advertisement by East African Breweries for Tusker Lite (featuring Jeff Koinange) banned from airing during watershed hours (that is, between 5am and 10pm) because it promoted drug abuse. He also banned Durex and Trust condom ads, for being “pornographic in nature, promoting and glamourizing sex among teenagers.” This was without consultation of the National Aids Control Council, which counts the promotion of condom use during sex as one of the strategies we can use to combat the HIV/AIDS in the country.

He banned an advertisement from Coca Cola’s Taste the Feeling campaign because it had a kissing scene (yet we still have soap operas airing the same thing). He also banned a Fresh Fri advertisement, a Lux Soap advertisement, and another alcohol advertisement by London Distillers. He has banned parties such as Project X and the Rainbow Speed dating party, the former because according to him, it was luring children with sex and drugs, and the latter because he thought it would be a lesbian orgy because the poster utilized rainbow colours that are associated with gay pride.

When Netflix came to Kenya, he said that its content was a threat to national security, and that it had explicit foreign content that is unsuitable for local consumption. He said he could block Netflix for this, and that they needed to run their content by KFCB to have it counterchecked to ensure that it does not go against our national values and morals. Which is odd, because this service is not based in Kenya. The people who use it do so because they elect to. The internet is permanently on. It has no watershed hours. What does this approach mean for people making YouTube tutorials? For people sharing their writing online? For people sharing cat videos on Facebook? Would they also need his approval?

The arts have been our key tool of dissent in times of oppression. In 1997, for example, the requirement for stage plays to submit their scripts to the KFCB for approval was repealed. This was the requirement that many a time got Ngugi wa Thiongo arrested and jailed for using theatre as a means of civic education. However, after this requirement was repealed, a group like Redykyulass, for example, was able to exist and somehow mock Moi when everyone else was deathly scared to. And they, in no small part, helped usher in the current freedom of expression we have that we never imagined during the Moi days. Now we can criticize our politicians freely, and make all manner of satire lampooning them, and other powerful people. So why would Ezekiel Mutua and KFCB want to take us back to the dark days?

There are benefits to a vibrant creative sector. To see the benefits of a vibrant film industry, for example, look at Bollywood and Hollywood. Closer home, look at Nollywood, a 3 billion dollar industry only coming second to India’s Bollywood by volume. We learn most of what we know about the USA, India and Nigeria through their movies, music and art. So how can such attempts at censorship happen during the tenure of a government that said when it came to power that it would invest in the arts and use them to power our economy?

In a recent article on the New York Times, Eve Ewing offers an answer.

Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

Which is why Ezekiel Mutua’s moral policeman approach simply won’t work. It cannot stop change – at the end of the day people have free will. And calling to culture is equally ill informed. Culture is fluid, and changes with the times – culture is made to serve man, and not man to serve culture. We preceded culture. We create it as we go along. And, we coexist in this world with others. We are not the same – in this country alone, we are a melting pot of ethnicities, religions, skin colours, sexualities and so on. Diversity is beautiful, and a source of strength.

Because of this diversity, we cannot say that there is one way to do things. We can only say what we agreed in our constitution and our other laws. We have a bill of rights, which protects freedom of expression and association. For me, a good guideline has always been to exercise your right to freedom as long as it does not cause another harm. And no, harm does not include hurt feelings, or dislike of something. Just because you do not like something, does not mean it’s wrong or immoral. Who gets to say what is wrong or immoral? Is this not subjective? Which is why we keep coming back to our constitution.

We need to fight for our freedom of expression and association. Laws don’t only affect people you don’t like or know – that’s not how laws work. Today you’re cheering the censoring of a film or play, tomorrow your church play will be censored using the very same law. Today you’re advocating for the jailing of someone you don’t know using a primitive law, tomorrow it’s your loved one being jailed. Such things go both ways. Which is why we must always fight for fairness, equality and justice for all before the law. And why any dispensation that goes against this diminishes human dignity.

This rule of law – this consideration of fairness, justice and equality, and the centering of human dignity, is why we call ourselves civilized. Censorship is not the answer. It can never be. It goes against our freedom of expression. Banning rarely, if ever, solves things. If what you are proposing is sane, beneficial and attractive – why do you have to force it down people’s throats? Why impose one’s thoughts and beliefs on others? Banning things is not the answer. Bans are usually touted as solutions to societal problems, but they also usually ignore the underlying issues that cause the issues we can see.

Moral policing is especially dangerous because it almost always leads to violence. Which is why men will feel justified assaulting and stripping a woman because she was “poorly dressed.” What is poorly dressed? Who dictates it? Where did we all sign a dress code? One cannot answer these questions, because there is no poorly dressed. There is only – I do not like your dressing.

Just as we recognize that we must not strip and sexually assault someone because of how they are dressed, we must recognize that we can’t censor people because we don’t like what they do or say. Tolerance and acceptance are key, and diversity is the spice of life.

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