February 2, 2018
By Isaac Mwangi
East African News Agency, Arusha
The decision by authorities in Kenya to shut down several television and radio stations for daring to broadcast live the proceedings of the swearing in of opposition leader Raila Odinga have sunk the media environment in East Africa to previously unimaginable lows.
The shutdown followed what has been a discernible thread of intimidation in recent years, especially from the days just before the August 8, 2017, general election.
Indeed, the Kenya government is said to have summoned senior editors of the main media stations to State House a few days to the event, where it is said the editors were warned that they risked having their stations shut down should they try to give live coverage to the event.
The meeting at State House is said to have been attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, Cabinet Secretary for Interior Dr Fred Matiang’i, Cabinet Secretary for Information Joe Mucheru, and Attorney General Prof Githu Muigai.
Consequently, the Kenya Editors’ Guild issued a statement condemning the threats and calling on the government to ensure that journalists were not harmed or intimidated as they went about their work.
Still, the action by the government to impose a media blackout was as unprecedented as it was unexpected, given the freedoms that Kenyans have come to take for granted. Until now, the country enjoyed the widest individual liberties and media space in East Africa.
Indeed, on paper, the country’s progressive 2010 Constitution guarantees a lot of liberties. With the government intent on clawing back on these freedoms using all possible means, including unlawful ones, it remains to be seen what will remain of these liberties in the coming days.
In following this dark path, the Kenya government is in good company in the region. Virtually all other countries in East Africa have restricted civil liberties.
Both Uganda and Tanzania have in recent times taken stern action against media outlets that have irked the powers that be. This has included closing down broadcasting stations and banning offending publications. Uganda has in addition earned the dubious distinction of shutting down social media.
Burundi, which narrowly survived a descent into civil war and chaos following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term, has clamped down hard on media with any modicum of independence.
In Rwanda under President Paul Kagame, the media cannot dare publish anything that would offend the government. South Sudan has experienced civil war and conflict, with obvious implications for media freedom in that country.
With the media in Kenya now threatened with the same fate as their counterparts in the region, it is indeed sad that East Africa has chosen the path of intolerance, intimidation, and violence in dealing with the media. And without concerted efforts both locally and internationally, there is little hope that the media can win this battle.
This is partly because the strangulation of the media has gone hand-in-hand with emasculation of independent governance institutions, including the courts.
Moreover, governments in the region are known to ignore court orders and even to coerce or influence judges to rule in a particular manner. Moreover, as individual and media freedoms shrink, civil society organisations that would otherwise have taken up the battle become equally intimidated.
It is gratifying to note the outpouring of support that the media in Kenya have received in response to the shutdown of media outlets. This has included messages of support from thousands of Kenyans on social media, which was not affected by the blackout.
In addition, media watchdogs and civil rights institutions from around the world have spoken in support of the media fraternity in Kenya. These included the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, and the International Centre for Policy and Conflict.
Still, a lot more international pressure needs to be put on Kenya and other countries in the region to respect media freedoms. When the media is gagged, all citizens will be at the mercy of the dictators in power. All citizens have a duty to reassert their rights and stop that possibility.