By Patrick Gathara @Gathara
If you play with fire you get burned. That was the reaction of many Kenyans to the Jubilee-controlled Parliament’s passage of Â a draconian law which restricts their advertising and imposes massive penalties for infractions by journalists and media houses. Many think the Kenyan media had it coming.
For some time now the Kenyan press has been in bed with the Jubilee coalition. Before the March election, they were complicit in the delegitimizing of civil society. Their silence over the flaws in the election and the idiotic Supreme Court judgement was a betrayal of the faith most had put in them. And ever since, from the Garissa “anti-terror operation” to the coverage of the Westgate attack, it has been one stumble after another, with journalists exhibiting an extreme reluctance to take on, question and criticize the government.
So the media is now being made to lie in the bed it made for the rest of us. They “slept on the job when vigilance was most needed” wrote one commentator. It is our schadenfreude moment, our turn to have some fun at the expense of ourÂ unthinking, celebrity-obsessed, state-worshiping newsmen. But as we do so, we should not lose sight of the fact that this is not just an attack against them. It is part of a sustained campaign by government to clamp down on dissent and roll back the democratic gains of the last twenty years.
The lies and threats that have become the government’s preferred way of communicating with citizens are a throwback to the Fuata Nyayo era. Back to 1984, when, as Okech Kendo recently reminded us, PresidentÂ Daniel ArapÂ Moi could declare that we should sing like parrots. “During Mzee Kenyattaâ€™s period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune until people said: ‘This fellow has nothing to say, except to sing for Kenyatta.’ I said I did not have ideas of my own. Who was I to have my own ideas? I was in Kenyattaâ€™s shoes and, therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted. If I had sang another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it.â€
This is the darkness into which Kenya is being dragged. This is not just about an incompetent and sycophantic media getting its comeuppance. We need to look at this in the context of the subversion of the institutions of state to tackle the ruling couple’s “personal challenges” at the International Criminal Court; the continuing efforts to crush political and governance minded civil society groups pushing for accountability for the crimes committed during the post-election violence of 2007/8; the rehabilitation of Moi as lovable statesman; and the push to vastly increase the state’s surveillance of the people via the introduction of Nyumba Kumi.
We thus must pay particular attention to the proposed amendments to the Public Benefit Organisations Act which seek to curtail NGO’s access to foreign funding. While this will cripple civil society organisations across the board, there is little doubt that the legislation targets those working to enhance transparency and accountability in Â government. It is they whom Jubilee has consistently sought to demonize -again with the media’s complicity- as Western stooges, they who were the backbone of the push for democratic freedoms in the 90s and they who ironically stood up for media freedoms when it was the turn of the Kibaki administration tried to introduce oppressive legislation.
We must be wary when the government says the cure to its bungling at Westgate is getting us to spy on one another. Nyumba Kumi, a concept which dates back to ancient China, has never been about security. It has always been a means to police dissent by turning all Â citizens into state intelligence agents.
Now this is not to say that we do not need to reform the media. We do. But, unlike what is being attempted
by the state, we need to make the media more inquisitive and more suspicious of the government. We need to look into the increasing tendency towards media concentration and cross-media ownership; the fact that powerful politicians, including the President, own many of the largest media organisations and outlets. What effect does this have on the editorial policies and the public’s access to information? According to Freedom House, many local journalists admitted that their election coverage required self-censorship to accommodate the interests of their respective media houses.We must also consider the effect Â of big budget advertisers, including the government. Remember when just before the 2007 election, the state was accused of trying to trickle the Standard by denying it advertising?
The media can itself begin this process. It’s howls of outrage sound more than a little hollow when there is little doubt that to date, it has pretty much been used to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent. It has been employed to scare us into silence, to discourage critical inquiry and to slander government critics. It has been a tool for legitimizing oppression, not a check on executive excess. Our journalists and editors now have an opportunity for introspection on their conduct over the last year, and to take a fresh look at those they were embedded with.
It is an opportunity to rediscover and recreate the old alliances with civil society and religious leadership that were so effective in confronting and rolling back the authoritarianism of the past. And that may just be the salve for their burns.
Read more of Gathara’s opinion pieces HERE