Saturday, January 10, 2009

Kenya journalists reap the fruits of sleeping with the enemy

The week before Christmas was again the season for the government of Kenya to have another street fight with its perennial lover, the media. It may even be safe to say that these bouts of violent attacks on the media from time to time are what sustains this marriage.

The two partners seem to cherish a dose of violent confrontation from every so often to add spice to their troubled relationship. If you look at the behavior of the media industry in Kenya, especially the management of big media in relation to political leaders, it will be difficult to see the difference. In fact they have more in common than what sets them apart. That is why it is hypocritical for the media in Kenya to accuse the government of enacting a law that intends to gag the media. To tell you the truth, the media in Kenya has a more suppressive internal self-censorship than what the government is planning. In many media houses, it is difficult to be published if your story is out of step with the company’s official thinking, no matter how weird that thinking is.

Coming back to our violent story of the week that started with the passing of the Media Bill considered hostile to Kenya’s press freedom, we were treated to a rare spectacle where, for the first time, a female radio station broadcaster was on the frontline agitating for press freedom. Caroline Mutoko, together with her colleagues, were arrested for standing up to the regime on a range of issues that included runway poverty, MPs’ refusal to pay taxes and, most painfully, the obnoxious Media Bill that intends to authorise the internal security minister to invade media houses and destroy broadcast equipment at will, should he deem the action to be in the interest of national security!

The relationship between the media and all regimes in Kenya can sometimes be compared to that between a hen and a fox. My parents used to tell me that whenever I got into trouble, part of it was because I went looking for it. And the story of the hen and the fox comes in handy to drive the point home. They would remind me that should the hen come running home with the fox in hot pursuit, you first chase the fox away and then, afterwards, admonish the hen for straying into the jungle in the first place. Remind the hen that any time it ventures from the confines of the compound, it is looking for trouble and one day it would find itself on the fox’s dinner table.

Last year, when Kenya journalists demonstrated on Nairobi streets--their lips sealed with masking tape--in protest against the same Media Bill, we praised them for finally standing up for their rights. But we warned them against complacency; if they went to sleep, that bill would come up again. It would be brought back by the very politicians who were pretending to love "press freedom" more than their spouses.

Wasn’t it ironical then, and even shameful, that soon after leading media houses were raided on "orders from above" in the early days of the Kibaki regime, when Election 2007 came, the same media houses were at the frontline championing the reelection of some of the very politicians? Wasn’t it strange that this time round as Nyambane of Nation Media Group, Caroline Mutoko of Kiss FM and other journalists were being rounded up for protesting against the Media Bill, their editors were being awarded medals of distinguished service by at State House?

I may be wrong, but in more civilised societies, these medals would have been rejected by the recipients in protest against government brutality. But clearly, our honoured gentlemen have not seen the need to do so. Most, if not all, probably have their medals displayed in prominence in their homes, and are basking in the attendant glory of adding a few more letters at the back of their name.

The history of government brutality is long and agonising. Since independence, regime brutality against journalists in Kenya has been consistent to a fault. If anything, the reason some obnoxious clauses have been included in the Bill this time round was simply to legalise the violence that has always been there.

President Kibaki is not the first to give medals to journalists. Daniel arap Moi honoured journalists that had served him well. And yes, no regime on earth honours anybody on the basis of professionalism and excellence alone. The individual must have offered exemplary service in furthering its cause.

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