by Njoroge Mugo
In the battle against censorship, men like Mr. Mutua ought to be fought only through the means they fear: Reason and law: rebukes, petitions, activism and advocacy, of humanism and liberty.
One phenomenon that you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter while attempting to convince a decidedly conservative Kenyan as to the merits of tolerance, of a democracy fully-realised, and of rationalising perceived maladies, is the inevitable prospect of running into any one of a number of possible thought-terminating clichés:
It is foreign. It is not within our cultural/national/moral values. It is immoral. It is repulsive. It is offensive to the majority of Kenyans.
In the latter half of this decade, the legal arena has been awash with battles between the moral whims of some people and the force of the bill of rights – a document to which every Kenyan is entitled. And it is nothing short of amazing just how much of this is actually a failure to reconcile individualism with the need to preserve societal values. All of these appear to beg a re-evaluation of our idea of democracy, and what entails its bare minimums. It is not enough for us to simply say of ourselves that we are a democracy and pat ourselves on the back simply because some paper says so. We must be willing to agree on essential attributes of it, attributes without which we could no longer claim ourselves to be a democratic state. What’s more, we must be willing to hold the people who break these attributes to a standard of legal action.
I am, personally, a free-expression fundamentalist, which is a self-nomer I assert with the full caution and knowledge that there can be, and are, unworthy forms of fundamentalism. Unfortunately for such like me, political breakthrough and approval from the masses are not depandably guaranteed by a lobbying for democratic tenets, nor are they guaranteed by an unflinching respect for human rights. As such, the case I attempt to represent here is that we need to protect people’s rights to hold and express ideas more than we need to protect the wellbeing of ideas.
Ezekiel Mutua—himself a walking thought-terminating cliché—does not believe in this. And it can be argued that his job quite literally requires it of him. His mandate charges him with the responsibilty of disbursing licenses to filmmakers, producers and exhibitors. The rational behind this is that we – Kenyans – need to protect ourselves from on-screen unpleasantness. A reasonable measure if we speak exclusively of children, but an indefensibly undemocratic one when we consider that KFCB ipso facto retains the authority to decide what sorts of films are made. That is, what sorts of opinions are stated.
The suitability of KFCB, Ezekiel Mutua’s state vehicle, as a manifestation of this faith-based conservativism seeps into state mandate manifests just how the premise of “opinion regulation” is at complete loggerheads with free expression. Appealing exclusively to the devout and reactionary, Mr. Mutua’s main agenda as KFCB CEO has been a campaign to purge the creative space of all unpleasantness, vulgarity, and any and all attempts to normalize anything his board might consider, at its own discretion, “offensive” to “decency” and “public interest”. A majoritarian propagandist through and through, Mr. Mutua has time and again proven himself capable of using the inordinate powers afforded to him by his state office to asphyxiate dissenting views (Shall we forget his endorsement of the suspension of press during the 2018 Raila-oath-taking when he said, “The media must regulate themselves or the Government will”?)
At the top of KFCB’s list of depravities, it needn’t be said, remains also that anthropomorphic evil proudly brought to us by the unscrupulous, foreign NGOs: the gay agenda. Last year, they banned Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki for glorifying homosexual behaviour. Again, their objections to its existence are not any we haven’t heard before: Homosexuality is—take your pick—unkenyan/unafrican/unnatural/unsightly/ungodly/of the devil. Our very own deputy president William Ruto, an excellent rhetorician but a man without a single trustworthy bone in his body, has openly and repeatedly said between walls of congregation that “homosexuals will have no room in Kenya”, among other variations of such. With every comment from the conservative faction comes a familiar echo consistently premised on an amalgam of unspecified denial and self-bestowed authority, and it appears there can be no limit to the possible permutations that can appropriately express this divine repugnance. But, avoiding for a moment the unavoidable question of quo warranto (i.e., by what right do these self-coronated moralists think themselves worthy interpreters of what is sufficiently Kenyan/African?), one is implored to assess the dangerous packaging of statements like “Homosexuals will have no room in Kenya” and their retention of an implicit okaying of dehumanization.
It is not merely the fact that Ezekiel Mutua or anyone else finds the gay existence to be a disgusting one in society—everyone reserves the right to find and express disgust in whatever they wish—more than it is the fact that he is willing, and able, to impetrate public disgust into a currency for justified acts of intolerance, abetting, thereby, a society in which certain people are acceptably deemed, by virtue of the way they identify themselves, as undeserving of dignity, livelihood, and citizenship. Unpersons. (Think Hans Landa’s monologue: “You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.” Or Aboud Rogo’s: “Ukitaka kumuua mbwa mwite mbwa koko”.)
In the exercise of such a phenomenon, we discover an ungoverned extent to which a conservative society is willing to go to “conserve” whatever it is that’s preached conservable by faith-based statesmen. Granted, it may not be obvious to a devout person, brought up in strict religion to be against all forms of sexual deviance, how this ubiquitous narrative of those repugnant others can be harmful. But it is certainly obvious, I would hope, to anyone who has heard or read of the recent legal regressions in Nigeria and Uganda, or of the awful devaluations in the Gambia—the ascent into law of bills that allow for the stoning to death of convicted gays; and the open solicitation by president Jammeh for the on-sight decapitation of “homosexual vermin,” both known and suspected. (This in a country that has consistently failed to get its GDP-pc past $500.)
But all this would be to assume a reasonable discussion on the role of ‘repugnant wisdom’ in morality.
On the matter of free expression, however, a firmer rebuke must be made to meet horribly casuistic statements like, ‘Kenyan films must reflect dominant moral values of the country.’ This statement, and many others made by Mr. Mutua, essentially compels painters, musicians, cartoonists, writers, actors, filmmakers to create only the art that pacifies “national moral values”, and stems from the authoritarian idea that:
1. There exists persons and groups that possess a monopoly on free expression, and that these same persons and groups have a special right not to be offended.
2. Extrapolations can be made from the beliefs of a majority to be used to dictate the extents to which the rights and freedoms of individuals are exercisable.
3. The right to free expression is granted by the state, and is subject to a supposed “moral consensus” and will of majority.
Much as it definitely was a valid objection that was raised against the New York Times’s distasteful decision to print images of fallen Kenyans in their publication, Patrick Gathara is right to fear that:
[…] It does have rather toxic implications for press freedom in Kenya. Not only does it make it easier for the state to isolate and target the foreign press corps, something it has previously done, but giving the government a taste of the power to decide what content media can carry could whet its appetite for more.
- Take down photo for press freedom’s sake, Patrick Gathara
I’ll close with Hitchens, who – in his exploration of axis-of evil-states – talks about an assignement he was sent on in the 1980s, in the-then communist Czechoslavakia, in which he was compelled to invoke the mention of Franz Kafka as a way to free himself of arrest, much to his chagrin since he regards such invocations as tired and clichéd. But in his own defense, he summarises that:
Totalitarianism is a cliché; dictatorship is based on clichéd thinking, on very tried-and-tested uniform stuff. They don’t mind that they’re boring, they don’t mind that they’re obvious, their point is made.
And utimately he urges that:
The urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.
Perhaps in line with this we should remember that freedom of expression is not the same as freedom to express things that I agree with. And especially not take it as a hard line when forming policies.
Njoroge Mugo, is a 22 year old man living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an actuarial science student in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He loves to read, write, listen to music, play chess, engage in spirited, topical debates with friends, re-watch old Leonardo Dicarpio movie scenes where his eyes are red and he is shouting at the top of his lungs. In his idle time he bitterly contemplates the ugly and seemingly unsolvable problems of his country.