BWIRE: Want a great tribute? Respect media freedom

Media coverage and handling of journalists during the demise of retired president Daniel Moi elicited several jokes to the effect that the stifling of media freedom was a hallmark of his presidency as it was during his death.

Starting with the restriction of media access to his residence in Nairobi, arrest of a journalist outside Nyayo Stadium on lack of accreditation to the confiscation of TV equipment in Kabarak during the burial, people made connection with a number of past incidences and laws against journalists and made their verdict.

Interestingly, you might notice that, a number of positive developments in the media freedom realm happened during Moi’s era including the liberation of the airwaves through the concerted efforts of media industry players and journalists.

It was during this period, through use of laws to not only harass journalists and media but obsession with wanting to control the media that journalists coalesced seeing a common enemy to vigorously stem off this push by government to come up with the thinking and structure of self-regulation in the media that was to be enjoyed by the establishment of the regulatory body for the media in Kenya.

Starting with the repeal of the penal code that provided for sedition during the Inter-Parties Political Group deal in 1997 to the formation of a Task Force on Press Law to inter alia: “make recommendations on Press Law providing for a comprehensive legal framework for the exercise of the freedom of the Press and the development of dynamic and responsible print and electronic media, making provision, inter alia, for free access to information and its dissemination; a code of professional and ethical standards; and ownership, development and licensing of the media,” in 1993.

You notice that its was during this period that journalists and media support groups intensified efforts to get involved and push for media reforms. KUJ in 1996 worked on a draft media bill, which they presented to the Attorney General, the Editors’ Guild of Kenya published ‘The Code of Conduct and Practice of Journalism in Kenya’ and in collaboration, the Guild, KUJ, Media Owners Association and the School of Journalism at the University of Nairobi developed the framework for self regulation that eventually saw the establishment of the voluntary Media Council of Kenya Trust, the predecessor of the Media Council of Kenya.

The politics of how even as the Task Force was working on the several media bills as informed by public views collected, then from nowhere the then, Minister for Information and Broadcasting made public the intention of the government to introduce in Parliament a Press Council Bill (1995) and Kenya Mass Media Commission Bill (1995), which were leaked to the press and the subsequent uproar that led to their hasty withdrawal will be narrated later.

While other laws existed from colonial times that restricted media freedom in Kenya, its how largely the sedition law was misused against the exercise of freedom of expression that that era is notoriously remembered and such comparisons made especially its application just before the multi-party politics in Kenya.

According to Amnesty International (1990), a number of people who produced, distributed, sold or had in their possession publications, tape music cassettes of popular songs criticizing the government were arrested and charged under sedition law. Such included people like Reverend Lawford Imunde, Sheikh Aziz Said Rimo, Charles Rubia, Kenneth Matiba, Raila Odinga, Joe Ager,  Gitobu Imanyara, David Makali, Bedan Mbugua, Mwenda Njoka, Hillary Ngweno, Joe Kadhi, Christopher Kamuyu, Joe Mwangi Mathai (company recorded and sold political songs), Gerald Chirabika Beti and Elijah Rukose Khasalika (for shouting, “Up with Matiba, down with Moi” and made V-signs in Kakamega), Charles Rukwaro, George Anyona, Edward Oyugi, Ngotho Kariuki, Pius Nyamora, SK Macharia, Njuguna Mutonya, Gatabaki, Frederick Kathangu, Dr. Willy Mutunga, Mary Ager, Florence Nyaguthie Murage, Philip Gachoga Githaiga, (being in possession of a leaflet of an underground political organization, Mwakenya – Muuangano wa Wazalendo wa Kukumboa Kenya, Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya – whose leaflets had called for the violent overthrow of the government, Caleb Mokaya (possessing a Mwakenya publication).

Publications that severally got into trouble plus being denied government advertisements included Beyond, Society, Nairobi Law Monthly, Finance, African Confidential Financial Review, the Star, Citizen Radio among others.

Editors have narrated for example the level of editorial interference from State House when Moi proclaimed 1987 ‘a year of discipline’ with subsequent increased use of emergency powers. Journalists had it rough Kenyan journalism was hard hit, receiving direct calls from OP became the order of the day, use of editors closely linked to State House to intimidate others against running some stories and arrests happened. Joe Kadhi has narrated this elsewhere.

Use of the court processes was not spared either and suspect judgments were made against the media while in some instances huge defamation penalties were given for individuals close to power then.

For instance, in January 1992, The AG moved to the High Court to stop the editors of Society magazine from publishing, distributing or selling an issue of the magazine whose cover had the portrait of the president holding his chin and the words ‘The Cost of Killing Ouko’ and ‘Kibaki Wants Moi Out.’

The case of the broadcasting licences and ensuing wrangles and court battles between Government, NMG, KTN and RMS over issue of frequencies is a long story.

But shortly, the Government liberalized the airwaves in 1991. In 1994 the AG obtained leave from the Court of Appeal to institute contempt proceedings against a reporter, the editor and publishers of The People for the contempt of scandalising the court. The reporter of The People published a story headlined ‘Court of Appeal Ruling on Dons’ Case Reeked of State Interference’ and in which the court ruling was linked to the president’s speech.

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