State crackdown on media bodes ill for our democracy

Yesterday goes down in history as the day the Government literally shut down the country. The day began on a high note. Both anticipation and trepidation gripped Kenyans. It was the day the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA), which has said it does not recognise Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as the president of Kenya, had chosen to swear in Raila Odinga as the 'people's president'.

The implications of the action was clear; to undermine the authority of President Kenyatta, an act that prompted Attorney General Githu Muigai to warn that Raila risked being charged with high treason. Predictably, the Opposition ignored the warning, urging the AG to examine the Constitution to see that its actions were legal. Therefore, it was not surprising that the conflict attracted the attention of Kenyans, who were no doubt yesterday glued to their television sets to see what would happen. Many were surprised when TV stations suddenly went off as they monitored the events at Uhuru Park, Nairobi, the venue of the swearing-in.

There had been advance warning of sorts on Monday when the chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild, Linus Kaikai, released a statement decrying the Government's attempts to curtail media freedom by trying to order media houses not to give live coverage to the NASA function. However, some Jubilee leaders denied that the Government had tried to intimidate the media. The deputy chairman of the Editors Guild later distanced himself from his chairman’s statement, defending the Government.

Mr Kaikai was vindicated only hours later by the abrupt, unexplained shutdown of television stations that were transmitting images live from Uhuru Park. That was unfortunate as it echoed the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Government insisted on having a finger on the pulse of the media, determining what should be published and what should not.

Yesterday's action was a blatant infringement on the citizens' right to information. It failed to take into account the fact that the role of the media is to inform, presenting actions as they happen without trying to influence them. To imply that the media can play their role responsibly only if they pander to the whims of the Government is to miss the point. The media in Kenya exist by law. They are not illegal operations. They are not perfect, but they are willing to be corrected when they make mistakes.

Sometimes the media have been accused of pushing the envelope too far. Indeed, some of those in power think journalists are good-for-nothing troublemakers. Quite the opposite. The media exist to serve the public interest. We in the media in Kenya consider ourselves a part of our fragile democracy and will do everything in our power to promote equity, openness, inclusivity, and ultimately, greater progress. 

Much thought and deliberation goes into how we package our news. At all times, the media are guided by considerations such as libel, national security, good taste, and decency. We in the media are alive to the sensitivities prevailing in our environments and always strive to stay true to our sacred calling, that of dispassionately informing the public. Where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself, said Chairman Mao, the great Chinese leader. Quite often, journalists will point out where the dirt lies. It is up to those in authority, people like Mr Joe Mucheru, the Cabinet secretary for Information, Communication and Technology, to clean it up.

It is wrong for Mr Mucheru to try to direct what content media should carry. During the last electioneering period, the CS was frequently on the phone to media managers on this mission. It was wrong for Mr Mucheru to try to blackmail the media to bend to his will, threatening to withdraw government advertisement.

The Jubilee administration's disdain for the mainstream media and its knack to pick on them for their perceived criticism of the authorities have never been in doubt. In fact, early in his first term, President Kenyatta (whose father was a journalist) dismissed newspapers as only being good for wrapping meat.

No amount of strong-arm tactics, back-stabbing, blackmail, and arm-twisting and intrigue will stop the media's role in the quest for a better Kenya.

media shut downmedia black outmedia freedom