Like other bullies before him, Kuria must let media be!
I have known Moses Kuria for many years from when he was ‘kijana wa mkono’ (errand boy) for Uhuru Kenyatta, who at the time was a Cabinet minister in Mwai Kibaki's administration.
In those days, you could tell how many shirts and jackets were in Kuria’s wardrobe – not many! He literally was what this administration calls a 'hustler'. He earned his upkeep by hanging around Uhuru's offices just in case his services were needed.
Suddenly, lady luck beckoned when the Gatundu South parliamentary seat became vacant. The Kenyatta family fronted Kuria as their candidate and bankrolled his campaign. He won with a landslide.
With time he built a name and stature for himself. When he felt he had ‘arrived’, he behaved like the proverbial frog which dispenses with the tortoise once it has been helped across the river on the back of the tortoise. Like the frog, Kuria turned against the Kenyattas once he had made a few shillings.
Well, the story is not about Kuria and the Kenyatta’s. It is about Kuria and the media. Recently, he purported to order government agents not to advertise with a certain media house. He threatened to send packing any government employee who will give business to the concerned media house. Never mind he has no such powers. His was just but what Justice Martha Koome would call ‘hot air’.
Kuria reminds me of one of the boys we used to call village bullies when we were growing up. They were rowdy and quarrelsome, picking a fight with every other boy even when it was them who ended up with a bloodied nose.
In his attempts to frighten the media, Kuria joins an infamous gallery of bullies who could not reconcile with the existence of free media.
Bernard Hinga was the first African to head the Kenya Police. He took over from the last of the white men to hold the position, Sir Richard Cartling, soon after independence.
Bernard Hinga had no love for the media. Under his watch, he even cancelled the budget to buy newspapers for senior police officers and ‘banned’ officers from reading newspapers during office hours!
In his retirement, I tracked him to his coffee estate in Nairobi’s Roysambu area next to the United States International University Africa. My photographer and I were driven to his compound without an appointment.
We didn’t tell the guard exactly who we were lest we be turned away at the gate. We waited until we were ushered in and introduced ourselves to the boss. He wasn’t amused to hear we were from the media. He also didn’t like our guts to just pop into his compound without an appointment. He demanded we leave at once.
But he couldn’t stop us from writing about him. I went ahead and did a story on him starting with the bit on how he chased us away from his home. His lawyer wrote to the newspaper I was working for demanding a retraction of the story and an apology. The media house declined and called his bluff. The matter ended at that. That is how to deal with village bullies. Just give them the contempt card.
There is also a famous altercation between Hinga and one-time editor-in-chief at The Standard and before that at the Nation newspapers, George Githii, who now lives in Canada. It arose from the famous 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport by Israeli commandos. A best-seller titled ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ was published and a movie was produced on the drama.
The Nation newspaper secured rights to serialise the book. But the police boss didn’t like the idea and telephoned the Nation editor demanding that the book serialisation not be done. The editor ignored the order and went ahead with the serialisation. Media houses don’t take instructions on how to do their job from the police!
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The police boss summoned the Nation editor to his office. The editor ignored the summons and went about his job. One early morning, police descended on Nation offices, arrested the editor, and took him to their boss.
On his release, the editor sued for illegal arrest and detention. The police boss was ordered to pay damages.
Every administration has had its set of bullies to intimidate the media. In the era of Second President Daniel Moi, I remember two particular ones. G.G. Kariuki and Burundi Nabwera. Both were Cabinet ministers in the office of the President but at different times.
In the first instance, Kanu headquarters had released an unsigned statement. A certain media house carried the statement but called it anonymous because it wasn’t attributed or signed by any official.
On reading the story, the minister for Internal Security G.G. Kariuki ordered the arrest of five senior editors at the ‘offending’ media house. Their ‘mistake’ was to have referred to KANU’s statement as ‘anonymous’.
The editors were only set free after intervention by President Moi who felt the minister had acted in a draconian manner.
Minister Kariuki didn’t stop there. At a KANU governing council meeting, he demanded that media houses be submitting to KANU headquarters for approval reports they intend to publish touching on the ruling party. President Moi again thought the demand weird and overruled his misguided minister.
Burudi Nabwera was another one. When he was a minister in the office of the President and the ruling party secretary-general, he threatened that in the future KANU youth wingers would forcibly seize and read hand-written notes by reporters covering KANU functions. He didn’t get the chance to implement his crazy idea.
There were other Moi-era tin-gods in the name of provincial administrators who tried hard to intimidate the media but in vain. One of them was then District Commissioner (DC) for Nyandarua, Ezekiel Machogu – yes, the same chap who is now cabinet secretary for Education.
In those days the provincial administration was a power unto itself. The PCs, DCs, DOs, and Chiefs had enormous and draconian powers couched in what was called the Chiefs’ Act. They were days when Chiefs would confiscate your chicken and auction it at forced fund-raisers called ‘Harambees”.
One day Standard newspaper published a report Mr Machogu didn’t like. He reacted by ‘banning’ Standard Nyahururu correspondent Mr Wanjohi Ndiritu from covering his functions. Of course, the illegal ‘ban’ was ignored and condemned.
Kibaki administration too had its share of hot-heads who loathed free media. Two most notorious ones were cabinet ministers who held the Internal Security docket at different times in the Kibaki era, Chris Murungaru and John Michuki.
Murungaru is remembered for a statement he made in Meru in regard to journalists. He had said: ‘Tutawasaka, tutawasiaga na kuwabwaga!” (Will hunt for them, crush and trample on them!).
Personally, I was a victim of Murungaru's illegal order. Early January 2005, I wrote an investigative story he didn’t like. Police officers were dispatched to arrest me at Standard offices. Fortunately, I had seen it coming and went ‘underground’. When they couldn’t lay hands on me they rushed to court and obtained a warrant of arrest.
Police said they would charge me with a non-existent offence they called 'criminal libel’. We acted the wiser by presenting myself in court and obtained cash bail. Next, the Director of Public Prosecutions Philip Murgor went to court and terminated the case.
He said individuals, however powerful they considered themselves, wouldn’t be allowed to misuse courts in fighting their personal vendetta.
His successor, Minister John Michuki, sought to outdo him by ordering a police raid at The Standard offices where journalists were manhandled and private property illegally destroyed. He too never went far.
Uhuru devised his own way of dealing with the media. He would give them the contempt card. He told us ‘magazeti ni ya kufunga nyama! (Newspapers are only good for wrapping meat!).
Now, if giants like Michuki and Murungaru couldn’t succeed in intimidating media, what makes upstarts like Mose Kuria lie to themselves they can do so!