Events of the past few days describe a disturbing trend that should now be cause for worry. For a country that proclaims respect for the rule of law, we are doing very poorly. Today marks the fifth day Kenyans will be staring at blank television screens following Tuesday’s government shutdown of leading stations. The unprecedented media crackdown has also given the country a chance to see the evolution of Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, as he tries to fit in the shoes of his predecessors, who equally had a love-hate relationship with the media.
But there has not been a government that has shown its intolerance for independent media than the Jubilee regime. This is the second time under this administration that the media has been shut down. The silence of the President and his deputy and the behaviour of people around them suggest that the media crackdown has the blessings of State House, especially after journalists from private media were denied access to cover President Uhuru Kenyatta’s return from the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The first time, the government used the excuse of digital migration, just to show the media that it was in charge. It is also not lost to the media fraternity the implied message in President Kenyatta’s frequent outbursts that newspapers are for wrapping meat whenever they cover something the government does not take kindly.
The media does not exist to pamper the government of the day. In fact, it is supposed to check on the excesses of arms of government which, if left alone, could turn against the very people on whose behalf they exercise power. This government has demonstrated one more time why the media must fight to remain independent. Despite a court order, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), which has become a puppet of the State, has spent the better part of the last 48 hours avoiding service of court orders.
This is not an isolated case where the government has acted with impunity, while purporting to anchor its decisions in the very Constitution it is breaking. State officers cannot cherry pick what parts of the law to obey and what parts to ignore. It is time to remind the government that absolute power corrupts and no state official is above the law, which guarantees freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. Governments that clamp down on the media and display this level of intolerance often have things to hide. A free press is not a privilege the State extends to Kenyans. It is a right under the law.
The government swore to protect the Constitution and this means President Kenyatta must immediately ask his lieutenants to sober up and familiarise themselves with the chapters of the Constitution on the right to information. Such actions have seen Kenya drop in global rankings of press freedom over the past decade, especially under the Jubilee administration, joining autocratic countries such as Tunisia.
Independent research by World Press Freedom Index covering 180 countries places Kenya in the bottom half, where several other previously unstable countries have lifted themselves out of.
The latest shutdown of independent TV stations and subsequent threats to journalists would only further erode the ratings currently classified as “problematic” in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Kenya seems to be closely taking the path of Tanzania which ranked sixth in the continent in 2010 but plunged nine places to 15 under current tough-talking President John Pombe Magufuli.
Kenya has been standing tall in the community of nations as having one of the most progressive laws. The Constitution had offered hope that we had finally insulated ourselves against authoritarianism, impunity and abuse of power. But the latest events show that we are still far from this. If the government and its officers are the biggest breakers of the law, why would anyone else be expected to follow it?