COMMENT: A loss for Kenyan democracy

COMMENT: A loss for Kenyan democracy

Mass resignation of columnists from The Nation shows press freedom means holding owners accountable

COMMENT | NANJALA NYABOLA | On March 27, eight columnists from the Nation Media Group resigned from the Nation newspaper, citing a lack of editorial independence. For Kenya’s largest daily, the exodus of top talent was the latest blow to an already tarnished reputation. The newspaper has suffered a series of embarrassing episodes in recent months, including high-profile firings, mass layoffs by the parent company, and allegations of state meddling in the editorial process.

But the resignations were more than another repudiation of a once-vaunted institution; they were a reminder that the media remain a powerful player in Kenya’s fledgling democracy. When governments constrain journalists – in Kenya or elsewhere – they do so at their own peril.

Like many African countries, Kenya has a long tradition of what might be called “activist journalism” – the dissemination of news and ideas to inspire political or social action. The practice has its roots in anti-colonialism; when the Nation was founded in 1960, it joined other pan-African publications like the New African and Drum to oppose colonial rule. By giving Kenyans a platform to voice their dissent, the Nation – led by its journalists – helped protesters articulate the ideas, slogans, and catchphrases that animated their movements. For many columnists, simply writing for these magazines was an act of resistance.

In the West, activist journalism carries a negative connotation, suggesting bias. But in Africa, this type of journalism has historically kept the media honest by forcing owners to focus more on public good than on profit. In Kenya, however, this model is being eroded by the flow of public funds into private media outlets in advertising and through increasing repression.

The media industry in Kenya is more lucrative than in most African countries, which has led some to assume that Kenya’s press is free. But, increasingly, the opposite is true. Many media companies are dependent on government advertising revenue, and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this spending is being used as leverage by the authorities to censor unfavourable coverage. This is one element of the “state capture of the media” that the eight Nation columnists cited in resigning.

To be sure, official censorship is not new in Kenya. After an attempted coup in 1982, many smaller newspapers were shut down by the state, and between 1988 and 1990, at least 20 newspapers were forced to cease publication permanently.

And yet, even during periods of government repression, savvy journalists have always found audiences for their dissenting views. During Kenya’s democracy movement in the 1990s, one of the most influential was Wahome Mutahi, a humorist who skirted state control to parody the authoritarian president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. Mutahi eventually spent 15 months in the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers as punishment for his writings.

Kenyan media experienced a revival in the post-Moi era; by 2012, the country had 301 radio stations and 83 television stations, up from only three television networks in the 1990s. But the growth in media outlets and liberalisation of the country’s politics did not translate into more press freedom. Instead, after a brief reprieve between successful elections in 2002 and post-election violence in 2007, journalists were targeted once more.

Crackdowns have ranged from the severe – including detention, torture, and disappearances – to the subtle. For example, when the political cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, known as Gado, was forced from his post at the Nation in 2016, his bosses did not explicitly fire the newspaper’s most popular contributor. Rather, they simply refused to renew his contract when it expired. The same thing happened to David Ndii, an economist and opposition-affiliated columnist for the Sunday Nation.

But these dismissals pale in comparison to a government-imposed blackout in early February. To prevent journalists from reporting on a political rally by then-opposition leader Raila Odinga, the Kenyan government forced three private television stations off the air for days, ignoring court orders to end the blockade. Journalists at one station, Nation Television, huddled in their offices as they coordinated with lawyers and sought to avoid arrest. When the dust eventually settled, executives from all three networks had resigned.

Without courageous, pioneering journalists, Kenya’s pro-democracy movement may never have succeeded. Activist columnists helped the public understand political decisions by making policy accessible. In Mutahi’s case, the use of his own family in his parodies was a device intended to demonstrate that petty domestic despotism was no different from the political tyranny orchestrated by an autocratic president.

Kenyans need similar means of reflection today. And yet, just when the country’s democratic institutions could most benefit from such a mirror, those who have historically held it up now believe they have no alternative but to put it down.

For Kenya, the very public decline of the Nation has come at a high cost. But it has also demonstrated that press freedom means much more than letting journalists say what they want, when they want, and how they want. It also means holding media owners accountable. A highly competitive electoral system framed by a compromised media is more likely to fuel dissent than to stem it, and Kenya’s democracy will suffer so long as the country’s stewards of public enlightenment turn their backs on it.

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Nanjala Nyabola is a writer, political analyst, and author of the forthcoming book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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