Shortly after Daniel arap Moi’s death, when most newspaper columnists and editors in Kenya were extolling the virtues of the former president, and praising him for his “kindness” and “humility”, Father Gabriel Dolan, a columnist with the Sunday Standard, submitted an opinion article that talked of why so many Kenyans who had suffered under Moi’s regime could not forgive him. In his column, the Irish Catholic priest/human rights activist wrote:
Too often we say let bygones be bygones or forgive and forget. Those cheap clichés fail to appreciate how some have suffered . . . The first step in any national healing and reconciliation process is public acknowledgement of what happened. That has not taken place in Kenya. The TJRC [Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission] was an effort at uncovering the nation’s ugly past and putting it on record. But its report has been denied, ignored and demeaned by successive regimes . . . How can you forgive when your perpetrators deny their culpability?
The Sunday Standard, predictably, did not publish the article. In protest, Father Dolan submitted his resignation letter, in which he stated: “Mindful of the subject dealt with in the rejected submission, it is sad that not only did the Moi regime silence critics and free-thinking during his reign but even in death his family-owned media house will gag any columnist who questions its sordid treatment of dissenters, opponents and human rights activists. This is a sad requiem for freedom of the press in Kenya”.
Father Dolan and I were among eight columnists who resigned en masse from the Nation two years ago in protest against what we perceived as undue editorial interference and censorship. (The six other columnists were Maina Kiai, Kwamchetsi Makokha, George Kegoro, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Muthoni Wanyeki.) In our statement, we noted that several editors and writers, and the cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (aka Gado), had been dismissed by the newspaper for being critical of the Jubilee administration. Our exit, noted Kwamchesti Makokha, “belies the crisis in Kenyan media”.
Senior managers at the Nation Media Group (NMG) underplayed the significance of our joint resignation. In a front-page editorial published in the Nation a couple of days later, it insisted that it was non-partisan and “committed to telling the truth”.
Maina Kiai, George Kegoro and Gabriel Dolan were subsequently offered columns at the Sunday Standard. (I began writing an op-ed column for The Elephant, as did Wanyeki, Makokha, Cheeseman and Lynch.) When Kiai, Kegoro, and Dolan moved to the Nation’s biggest rival, I did wonder how they would fare there, given that Moi owned the newspaper in partnership with his former private secretary Joshua Kulei. (Despite claims of editorial independence, the Standard had rarely taken a stand that directly challenged Moi’s leadership, though at certain times in the country’s evolution as a multiparty state, the paper did take daring positions that might have offended its owners.)
Moi’s hold on the Standard became clear to me sometime at the end of 1992, almost exactly a year after the president had called for the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that ushered in multipartyism. At that time, my weekly column at the Sunday Standard’s pull-out magazine section was abruptly discontinued. The column was titled “Straight from the Heart” and had gained a reputation for its frankness and focus on social (soft) issues. I was 29-years-old at the time, arguably one of the youngest columnists in the country, and an Asian woman to boot. I began writing the column at precisely the time when the Kenyan media was opening up and asking hard questions (thanks to multipartyism). Previously gagged columnists and cartoonists were lapping up their new-found freedom and doing what was previously unthinkable – caricaturing Moi and challenging his regime.
Perhaps it was my youthful naiveté that led to me to the office of Ali Hafidh, the then the editor-in-chief of the Standard newspaper. After waiting for a few minutes outside his office at the Standard’s main offices in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, I was ushered in. I had never met Hafidh before (the pull-out magazine I co-edited was managed by a subsidiary of the Standard and was located in the posh Lonrho building in the central business district, so my interaction with my colleagues in Industrial Area was limited). I expected to meet a rude, loud, and arrogant man (because that had been my experience with editors with big egos in Kenya’s media houses). Hafidh, who had worked as chief sub-editor with the Nation newspaper before taking up the position of editor-in-chief at the Standard, appeared to be a quiet, self-effacing and soft-spoken man. I politely asked him why he had decided to discontinue my column. His response? “Some people didn’t like it”.
Now, in those days if an editor told you that “some people” didn’t like your column or story, you knew exactly who those people were. I walked away from his office without further questions.
At that time the Standard was associated with Mark Too—also known as President Moi’s “Mr Fix-It”—who sat on the board of Roland “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonrho Group, which owned the newspaper. (Lonrho PLC sold the newspaper to Moi in 1995.) It was obvious that someone in Moi’s government was not happy with what I had written. The last column I wrote before my dismissal had talked about why privatising Kenya Airways was not such a wise decision. Did Moi or his cronies feel threatened that such an opinion might derail talks on the sale of the national carrier? If so, I found it quite amusing, if not unbelievable, that a columnist of my rather small stature could offend a head of state. After all, in the world of mega-columnists like Philip Ochieng, Wahome Mutahi (aka Whispers), Kwendo Opanga and Tom Mshindi, I was a midget.
After that experience, I veered away from mainstream journalism and found a career in the United Nations, where I watched Kenya’s pro-democracy movement from a safe distance. Those were the days of Saba Saba rallies, and opposition politicians hiding out in Western embassies. Although the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution had opened up the media space in Kenya, leading to a proliferation of opinion writers and publications, some media houses were less free than others. And Moi’s invisible hand could be felt everywhere.
I only reclaimed my space in mainstream Kenyan journalism many years later, in 2006, when I was offered a weekly op-ed column in the Daily Nation.
How free is free?
Kenya is often lauded by the international community as having one of the freest media on the continent. This is true—but only partially so, as I will explain later. While journalists in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan were (and are) routinely gagged, jailed or even killed, after 1992 it became increasingly rare to hear about journalists being arrested or tortured.
But then, as Noam Chomsky explains in his brilliant treatise Manufacturing Consent, there is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves. Commercial interests and the interests of media owners often determine the content of newspapers. Editors happily give in to these interests because newspapers are for-profit organisations that depend on revenue to survive.
The reason why Kenya’s mainstream traditional media can never be truly independent is that they are part and parcel of what we might refer to as The Establishment. As Denis Galava points out in a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Kenyan Politics (published in February this year and edited by Nic Cheeseman, Karuti Kanyinga and Gabrielle Lynch), “despite a level of independence and the relatively high quality of investigative journalism that has helped to uncover scandals and bring attention to certain injustices . . . the media in Kenya is part of both ideological state apparatuses and other hegemonic structures that help to ‘manufacture consent’”.
There is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves
The Nation Media Group, for instance, has always deferred to the government in power because its biggest shareholder, H.H. The Aga Khan, has various commercial interests in Kenya. Even though it has at various times championed opposition politics, it has always been careful not to topple or irreversibly damage the relationship the Group enjoys with the state.
There is also what could be perceived as an unhealthy relationship between the NMG’s Board of Directors and corporate interests that are not particularly keen on independent journalism. As Herman Wasserman and Jacinta Mwende Maweu point out in their paper, “The freedom to be silent? Market pressures on journalistic normative ideals at the Nation Media Group” (Review of African Political Economy, 2014), quite often the NMG’s Board of Directors (most of whom represent or sit on the boards of other companies) make decisions purely on the basis of profit. They wrote:
It is evident that the top executives of the NMG are not trained journalists, but strategic corporate executives to oversee the business orientation of the Group . . . 16 members of the Board of Directors are handpicked by the main shareholder, the Aga Khan, and they are supposed to act as his ‘eyes and ears’ to ensure business prosperity of the group and subsidiary companies . . . This business orientation of the Group is slowly but surely narrowing the gap between journalists and advertisers, bankers, financiers and industrial business people. . .
Wasserman and Maweu note that quite often the Board of Directors exerts pressure on the NMG’s top management, who in turn exert pressure on individual journalists to promote the owners’ interests.
However, “state capture” of the media still plays a dominant role in how commercial media houses in Kenya operate. In both Moi’s and Jomo Kenyatta’s time, it was quite normal for newspaper editors to receive calls from State House urging them not to publish or to underplay a certain story. For instance, when J.M. Kariuki was assassinated in 1975, the Nation newspaper, under the editorship of George Githii, (in) famously reported that the Nyandurua MP was in Zambia.
In another instance in 1989, when Gray Phombeah (full disclosure: Gray is my husband), the Special Projects Editor at the KANU-owned Kenya Times, unearthed an Italian mafia link in Malindi that had close ties to State House, he, along with Joseph Odindo, the acting editor-in-chief, were fired. (The editor-in-chief, Philip Ochieng, was out of the country at the time. Ochieng had “poached” both Gray and Odindo, among other journalists, from the Nation newspaper.) They only got their jobs back after they wrote a personal apology to Moi. (Odindo has since held various senior editorial management positions at the Nation and the Standard. Gray joined the BBC Africa Service in London, and then returned to the BBC’s Nairobi Office, which he eventually headed until his departure in 2008.)
But that was then, in the cloak-and-dagger Moi days, when all journalists were under intense scrutiny, and when no newspaper, let along the ruling party’s, could get away with being critical of the government. Newspapers had moles in every newsroom, and the dreaded Special Branch did not hesitate to pick up journalists for real or imagined negative reporting. But for this practice to continue in another form, this time with the complicity of editors, shows we have not really embraced the concept of independent journalism.
For instance, it is widely believed that under Tom Mshindi’s editorial leadership, the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta enjoyed special privileges at the NMG. The departure or dismissal of several columnists, writers, and editors at the Nation occurred during his tenure—which leads many to believe that he took instructions about who to retain and who to fire from State House.
As Galava notes in his chapter:
Most recently, Tom Mshindi, who was the Nation’s editor-in-chief between 2014 and 2018, was accused by editors and some columnists of engendering self-censorship, uncritical acquiescence to President Kenyatta’s capricious demands, and gatekeeping for the state. During his tenure, Mshindi fired journalists deemed to be too critical of the government, including this author. Also pushed aside was David Ndii, a public intellectual and an ardent critic of the Jubilee government, who wrote a popular fortnightly column in the Saturday Nation. Another low moment for Kenyan journalism was the unprecedented mass resignation of eight independent columnists . . . in March 2018 on the basis of claimed lack of editorial independence. The timing of the columnists’ resignations was critical because it coincided with the hardest clampdown in Kenya’s media history and the most desperate measures of self-preservation that media actors had embraced to survive and profit in the prevailing circumstances.
(Ironically, not long after we resigned from the NMG, Tom Mshindi was offered a retirement package, which included a weekly column in the Sunday Nation.)
It is odd that a newspaper that led a campaign against “brown envelope journalism”—the practice prevalent among many Kenyan journalists of writing stories that are favourable to whoever pays the price—could succumb to government pressure. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice among politicians, and even among private sector companies. However, as professional standards in newspapers improved, and especially with the advent of commercial TV stations in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, bribery was increasingly not tolerated. (Some journalists even lost their jobs for having taken a bribe.) Top journalists in the country began commanding higher salaries because editors and editorial boards understood the importance of retaining good journalists, news anchors and reporters who could pull in the audiences required to keep profits soaring.
If you can’t buy them, strangle them financially
Under Jubilee, however, the fate of media houses has become increasingly precarious. With the introduction of MyGov, a government pull-out that advertises government jobs and tenders and is essentially a government mouthpiece, revenues in media houses have been plummeting as they no longer benefit from government advertising—a major source of their income. Media houses are cutting back on staff as a result, and some even face imminent closure in the face of declining readership (thanks in part to poor management decisions, such as those made by Mshindi on behalf of the government, which reduced the level of trust that audiences/readers have in the mainstream media—media that not too long ago were rated as among the “most trusted” institutions in the country.) Disgruntled or frustrated journalists are finding livelihoods elsewhere, in PR or in the NGO or private sector.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice
The quality of journalism has also declined. The previous practice of “buying” journalists and editors or denying media houses advertising in order to “punish” them has resurfaced. Investigative stories implicating senior officials close to the powers that be are being suppressed. Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses where hosts think their main job is to entertain, not to inform or debate. Censorship is also in full swing. Clear evidence of this was the government-orchestrated blackout of three TV channels in January 2018 to prevent them from airing the “swearing-in” of Raila Odinga as the “People’s President” at a rally in Uhuru Park. We are now back in the bad old Moi days.
The only difference between the Moi days and today is that we have far more journalists willingly toeing the government line than we did in the 1990s. Even die-hard anti-Uhuru columnists, like Makau Mutua, have softened their position. The sanitising of Moi during his funeral, the insanely tedious focus on the rivalry between deputy president William Ruto and Uhuru’s new ally, Raila Odinga, and the celebrity-focused mind-numbing stories that pass off as news obscure the life-and-death issues that ordinary Kenyans have to grapple with on a daily basis.
There is also insufficient interrogation of government edicts, including the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI); those opposing BBI are often portrayed as unpatriotic spoilers. Kenyan stories that make international headlines are also ignored or underplayed. For instance, I believe I am the only Kenyan journalist who questioned the role the now-disgraced Cambridge Analytica played in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections.
Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses
Interestingly, social media, or more specifically Kenyans on Twitter (dubbed KOT), have stepped in to fill the vacuum. It should be noted that it was only when a Kenya Airways employee posted a video on social media of a plane from China landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport—despite the government’s stated ban on such flights due to the high number of coronavirus cases in China, where the infection originated—that the Kenyan mainstream media began taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. And when the Kenya Airways employee was suspended by the airline, it was KOT that defended him, not the media houses. (Kenya Airways, in a press statement, claimed he had breached security at the airport and that they had suspended him so they could carry out investigations. A court later ordered that he be reinstated.)
Similarly, the locust invasion that is devouring parts of this country was first highlighted on social media. The government’s response to this livelihood-threatening disaster has since been poor at best, if not contemptuous.
How the mainstream traditional media tackles such issues in a post-opposition Kenya where the citizenry has been homogenised and neutered by the famous handshake between Raila and Uhuru will be interesting to watch as we approach a tumultuous and unpredictable election in 2022. What will also be interesting to see is what alternative sources of news and information Kenyans will rely on as they head to the polls.