The selective shutdown of mainstream media houses NTV, KTN and Citizen TV by the government can only be construed as an assault on independent media and by extension on freedom of speech. It must be resisted by all Kenyans of good conscience. It will be remiss of Kenyans not to do so.
The backdrop to the crackdown was an alleged meeting of a select group of editors and or media owners at State House. The meeting was ostensibly organised to ensure the ‘swearing in’ of NASA leader Raila Odinga as the ‘People’s President’ does not get any publicity including live broadcast.
Selective assault on independent media
What followed was a swift shutdown of NTV, KTN and Citizen TV, with some journalists associated with the Nation Media Group’s NTV finding themselves on the government’s cross hairs being subjected to intimidation and harassment.
Although the actual content of the alleged meeting at State House remains a subject of dispute, there can be no doubt about the government’s displeasure with the determination by the three media houses to air live broadcast of the ‘swearing in’ event.
The government’s tardiness in switching on the media houses taken off air is in direct conflict with court orders suspending the shutdown.
The government’s Machiavellian approach, intimidation and harassment of journalists and independent media houses should serve as a salient reminder of how dark and repressive things can quickly get.
It brings back memories of the all-powerful presidency during the KANU era where one man ruled with an iron fist. Caution was the guiding principle and all content which appeared in newspapers or aired on radio and television was carefully crafted to ensure it does not offend the powers that be.
A link to the KANU era
Coincidentally, there is a link between what was happening then and what is happening now. It is not a secret that some of the top leaders in the Jubilee government are creatures of the former KANU government.
Their careers were born, nurtured and blossomed during the politically repressive era where instinct for political self preservation and propagation at whatever cost was the tool of the trade.
The government’s propensity to attack and silence pesky critics in whatever form or shape they come including the courts shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise but Kenyans should remain ever vigilant in their protection of freedom of speech.
We know all too well that in their very nature, if allowed elbow room and discretion to determine how, where and when freedom of speech is exercised, governments in countries like Kenya where democracy is still evolving will not take an inch, they will take a mile.
That’s why the government’s assault on independent media cannot be of passing interest to Kenyans. There is need to stand steadfast in defense of freedom of speech and media independence.
The government must be reminded at every opportunity that freedom of speech is an inalienable right enshrined in the constitution. It is neither given by the government to be withdrawn at its discretion nor is it exercised at the pleasure of the government of the day.
There are plenty of examples from around the world that would lend strength and credence to the proposition that good governance, responsible political leadership and development, and the existence of a vibrant and independent media are inextricably intertwined.
Independent media plays an important role
The media plays a vitally important role in promoting good governance. A vibrant mainstream media has now been a key feature of our political system since the promulgation of the new constitution.
It provides not only a powerful platform for reporting, interpreting and scrutinising public policy but also acting as a tool for relentlessly holding those in power accountable.
The latest effort by the government to silence independent media houses does not only fly in the face of the new constitution which entrenches freedom of speech at its core, it also threatens to wind back hard earned political rights and liberties.
Chief Justice concerned
To amplify the seriousness of the matters at hand, the Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court in an uncharacteristic fashion recently released a statement making it clear and in no uncertain terms that “every government officer, institution or private citizen are obliged to comply with court orders”. No buts, no ifs.
The Chief Justice was bemoaning the government’s serial offending, blatant disregard and failure to comply with court orders. There is a saying that a government is only as good as its last act.
If the Jubilee government’s act of silencing independent media is a true indicator of what the next five years hold, Kenyans should get concerned.