Today’s column is not for you; it is for our grandchildren who, 50 years from today, will be researching the demise of one of the most vibrant media in the world: the Kenyan media.
The year 2015 marked the beginning of the end for Kenyan media as we know them. First let me establish my credentials: as the managing editor of the Daily Nation (among other titles that are neither here nor there), a scarred veteran of 20 years in the trenches, local and regional, prime candidate for retirement, I am the sugar daddy of the media, the insider, the bloody status quo itself. If you have not spoken to me, it does not matter how many bloggers, fringe columnists, scholars who have never set foot inside a newsroom, and publishers of River Road magazines, you can’t really say you have spoken to the media.
So, if there was a media-wide conspiracy against the Jubilee government, or persons within it, you would expect that I would know. There is none. Having got the bona fides out of the way, let me get into the business of informing the future what went wrong with the present.
There are things which, to misquote Ken wa Maria, are “fundamental”. They are basic, essential. No man ever looked and sounded more professorial than Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, perhaps not the politician, but the teacher before him. The heavy beard, the air of quixotic Marxism hanging over his ascetic frame, the luxuriant baritone purposefully created to enunciate scholarship; it all spoke of a man born for the business of knowledge.
But even such a scholar reminded us that beneath the beard was a man, not a cat.
After I have communed with them,
With the dead men’s ideas,
‘Nyang’ Dyang’’ comes to me
With accusing persuasion:
Come “wuod twon”
My activities are vital.”
He makes it amply clear in Daughter of the Low Land that even after he has communed with dead men’s ideas, dwelt in the “half-lighted book cave” and lingered “in the forest of dead men’s heads”, he was still susceptible to the “yeast from the low land”, if you know what I mean. He is still a man. That is basic, essential. It is fundamental.
The Jubilee government is killing the media. Unlike previous governments, it is has gone beyond merely trying to shackle journalists with funny laws, it is doing so by withholding advertising money. It started by creating a stinking organisation, the bastard child of all bad ideas, called Government Advertising Agency, whose job was to aggregate all government advertising and dole it out depending on whose lips are making the most frequent contact with whose rear end. Why the government has gone into the media buying business, when there are advertising agencies with 50 years of competence in that field, only the buffoons bloating their stomachs with bribes in that circus can tell us. Now, on the authority of no less than the Head of Public Service, Mr Joseph Kinyua, himself, Jubilee has dropped all pretence: it has ordered accounting officers, on the pain of being surcharged and punished, not to advertise in the media but to place all their ads in some government Pravda called MyGov. Probably these geniuses have figured out how to play TV ads on their Pravda.
It is immoral, disingenuous, and quite likely unlawful, for government to bar law-abiding enterprise from engaging in honest commerce, to deny journalists livelihoods and destroy Kenyan democracy – there is no democracy without a free press, none – on the pretext of “saving money”, particularly when we know that under Jubilee, public money is carted away in sacks by Josephine Kabura. It’s not possible to practise democracy with an empty brain; you need at least an outline of the theory in there. We must try to ensure that we are equal before the law and we must remember that unfettered and unchallenged power is not the way of democracy, it is the way of dictatorship. Media challenge power. I was pleasantly surprised to read about former US President George W Bush, written off by the world as an air head, arguing forcefully that you can’t have democracy without media. It’s like making beer without yeast.
I am not protesting because I am personally or institutionally threatened, far from it. The government accounts for about 30 per cent of the revenues of big media, far less for the Daily Nation. Whereas it is painful to lose that revenue, it is not fatal. But it is fatal for small media – the village newspapers, community radio and county TV stations. These instruments allow neighbours to speak to one another and drive consensus. They also stand up on behalf of the community against local government. Without them, the MCAs can now feast on the people. And all for what? The fear of a non-existent media conspiracy against Jubilee, or parties within it? My optimism for devolution was based on this democratic crucible Jubilee has trampled upon. So my grandchildren, if there is no Daily Nation, you who is to blame.