Media literacy

Kenya Media Under Siege

Journalists in Kenya are under siege and they are running scared. Those not so lucky to escape the dragnet are ending up dead and the current regime of President William Ruto seems to have its paws all over this.If in doubt, one needs to look closely at recent incident reports to see a pattern. This dangerous trend that began anew at the tail end of the Uhuruto government threatens to spin out of control and cannot be sustained or allowed to continue because good journalists are hard to find.

Good journalists are the eyes of the Nation; the last line of defence when democracy comes under attack. Without a strong, free and independent media, the people suffer. Worse, dead journalists tell no tales. Hence, an urgent need to protect journalists and allow them to work freely. No one, not even the most powerful people in the land, should be left to think that journalists are a soft target; defenceless and vulnerable to attack and elimination willy-nilly.

There is a swahili saying that, “Dalili ya mvua ni mawingu”. Loosely translated to mean, that the signs of rain first appear in the sky. The fact that the media in Kenya is in peril is evident. I know because I cut my teeth in journalism in the last leg of the brutal regime of President Daniel Arap Moi. I can see clear indications that all is not well and so can every journalist with some experience of how a repressive regime works. Perhaps it is for the same reason that K24 ran a feature in the last week of March decrying the rise in what they called, coordinated attacks against journalists in Kenya.

press attack

Gagging the media

When the authoritarian leader, Daniel arap Moi, under a strong push from progressive pro-democracy forces to relinquish power, became desperate to hold onto power by any means necessary, he launched a vicious onslaught against the media, whom he believed were hellbent on his overthrow. Moi launched scathing attacks against the media at every podium he got, just like the current President and protege are doing.

Under Moi’s command, media houses were routinely raided, and equipment destroyed. Newspapers would be swept off the streets and vendors arrested. The printing presses were not spared. These tactics forced the Star to fold. Citizen Television, my next employer, also suffered debilitating raids and was forced to close temporarily. Star Editor, the late Magayu Magayu, who published the hard-hitting Star Newspaper came under fire. He was put under surveillance by the ruthless Special Branch, along with journalists working with the Star. He would often get direct calls from the President, demanding that he withdraw articles deemed to be critical of the government. Exposes, revealing theft and plunder of public resources, excessive use of force by police and the arbitrary arrest and detention without trial of political leaders, particularly irked President Moi Magayu would spend many nights in jail for defying those presidential directives. Many journalists, myself included, would subsequently also end up in jail, facing trumped-up charges. Some targeted journalists regrettably ended up dead.

Those who survived torture, beatings and tremendous acts of indignity and humiliation still suffer trauma from that experience. Today, Kenya seems to have come full circle. President Ruto’s strong-armed style of governance is sending chills down the spines of many veteran journalists who know only too well what can go wrong when individuals are allowed to wield excessive power. Already, dozens of known journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and whistle-blowers, whose names I won’t list are dead. Many more are in great danger. The big question is, what will it take to stop this madness?

It is worth noting that the modus operandi of government operatives has not changed much. As I write this, all guns point to investigative journalist John Allan Namu, who has linked government actors to a scandalous supply of fake fertilizer, in his latest expose. A government minister is on record denouncing the journalist in a manner likely to open the floodgates of attacks against him and the media in general.

In the recent past, we have witnessed similar attacks, which end up with journalists being physically attacked and harmed. Lawyer and human rights activist Okiya Omtatah, denounced by President Ruto as a troublemaker, was recently attacked and his house vandalized—these are clear indications that all is not well.Kenyans in general are unsettled by government conduct, barely two years after President Ruto took power in a disputed August 2022 election. Many feel vulnerable and defenseless in the face of blatant misuse and abuse of power by the government.

media freedom

Over taxation, breakdown of the rule of law, corruption, extortion, black mail and arm twisting by government actors has the public worried and with good reason. The current state of affairs demands drastic action to steer the country back to the path of democracy, peace and justice briefly experienced in the President Mwai Kibaki era and post the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which gave Kenyan media the freedom to do their work unhindered.

The Constitution also gave citizens of Kenya the right to demand and receive the benefits of good leadership, while divesting power from the President and vesting it upon the people of Kenya, who in turn have a duty to exercise their power to protect and entrench their hard-won rights and freedoms.