A long-serving head of the civil service in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government once told me of a tense moment when the church had organised demonstrations against the government because of illegal oaths taking place in the Mount Kenya region.
The day after the demonstrations, the President had summoned church leaders to State House where he fumed and threatened.
When he cooled down, the men of the collar calmly but firmly stated their case and why they had resorted to picketing in the streets after the authorities had denied them audience.
After keenly listening to the clergy, the President remarked: “Look, we are fighting because we haven’t been talking. Now that we have talked, we can reach an understanding even as we go back to play our different but complementary roles in the society.”
And that had me thinking: Maybe the Kenyan authorities and the media have been talking at, not with, each other.
Has Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i held a meeting with the media in a friendly atmosphere devoid of threats?
And have the media for once viewed government as a well-meaning institution intent on serving a common good?
Talking of Dr Matiang’i, I have known him for close to two decades.
I first met him through my friend and colleague Mwenda Njoka who is now spokesman for the Interior ministry.
Dr Matiang’i is a tough man. He pulls no punches and can argue his case until cows come home.
But he also has a soft, humane side. I once saw both sides of the man.
We were driving one late Saturday evening from a place called Runda Mumwe where we’d a common interest.
We were on a stretch of a dusty road in the middle of two huge coffee thickets near the picnic site, Paradise Lost, off Kiambu Road.
An old taxi-car had stalled in the middle of the road and Dr Matiang’i had stopped to help the stranded driver.
That must have been too kind of him. Not many motorists, including myself, would stop in the middle of coffee plantations at night to help a stranger when it could turn out to be a trap by criminals.
Dr Matiang’i flagged me down and asked whether I had a cable or a rope to enable us pull the stranded vehicle to the main road.
I didn’t have either. At that point he turned to the stranded driver and said: “Look here my friend, we can afford to lose your car but not your life. So we leave the car here and drop you at the main road from where you can seek assistance.”
The taxi driver was a bit hesitant. At that point I saw Dr Matiang’i getting ready to grab him by the collar and force him into one of our vehicles.
Luckily, the driver saw the point before Dr Matiang’i unleashed his temper on him.
At one time we were in politician John Keen’s study. I remember telling the elder politician that Dr Matiang’i was my boss.
“No, Kamau, I am not your boss. I am your partner,” he protested.
The former lecturer at the University of Nairobi was so impressed by the collection of books in John Keen’s library and remarked: “You know you can tell the kind of a person from the books they read!”
And talking of media playing different but complementary roles with the government, the story is as old as Kenya.
Immediately after the British government drew the first borders of the geographical expression that came to be called Kenya, the country got its first national newspaper called East African and Uganda Mail, which was published in Mombasa.
It was soon followed by another newspaper called The African Standard. The latter would change its name to The East African Standard and later The Standard as we know it today.
The African Standard played a complementary role to the colonial government of the day to a point the Editor-in-Chief, one W.H. Tiller, always signed his editorial comments with the wording: “Yours Responsible Editor.”
The newspaper had been established by a wealthy Indian called AM Jeevanjee, the man the city’s Jeevanjee Gardens is named after.
He had made a ton of money for himself as the main supplier of materials during construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
He decided to give back a little of the money to the society by starting Kenya’s oldest national newspaper.
The media would later play a key role in the agitation for independence from colonial rule.
One of the early publications in the liberation column was a vernacular newspaper called Muigwithania (The peacemaker).
It was edited by one Johnstone Kamau who later became Jomo Kenyatta.
The colonial government banned the newspaper when it learned plans were under way to make the publication a national newspaper through publication of Kiswahili and English editions.
Meanwhile, young Kenyatta relocated to London to champion the cause of Kenya Africans.
There he found a ready partner in the African-friendly media and where he became a regular contributor.
His most regular media outlets in London were a weekly newspaper called The Sunday Worker and a monthly periodical called The Labour Monthly.
Mzee Kenyatta’s contributions to both publications were biting, taking the bull by the horns.
This is what he wrote in The Sunday Worker of October 27, 1929:
“The natives of the colony are showing their determination not to submit to the outrageous tyranny, which has been their lot since the British robbers stole their land.
"Kenyans are compelled by means of forced labour to work the vast natural wealth of their country for the profit of their interloping imperialist bosses.
"Discontent has always been rife among Kenyans and will be so until they govern themselves”.
And in The Labour Monthly of November 1933, he was to write: “Perhaps many will ask: What can we do against an imperialist government which is armed with machine guns and aeroplanes? My answer is that we have learnt examples from other countries.
"And the only way out is the mass organisation of workers and peasants of various tribes, and by having this unity we shall be in a position to put up a strong protest against this robbery and exploitation.”
The media were to play an even bigger role in the fight for independence after the colonial government proscribed political activities of any kind and imprisoned leaders of the independence movement from across the country.
Both the mainstream press as well as the underground media took over from where politicians had left and kept the flame of independence on.
For one reason or the other, some suspicion developed after independence between media and those in authority.
But from several accounts, there was always an agreement to live and let live.
When the worst came for the worst, reason prevailed and there was always a quiet dialogue between the media and the authorities.
I remember one of the pioneer independence editors, George Mbugguss, telling me of two occasions when newspaper editors were summoned to Mzee Kenyatta’s State House for a talk after the government felt the media were pushing the envelope too far.
He told me that on both occasions the President read the riot act but at the tail-end he reached a reconciliatory tone by saying:
“Go back and do your job but remember if you burn the country, you too will burn with it!”
I also remember politician GG Kariuki telling me of an occasion when he was minister for Internal Security and had ordered senior editors at Nation newspaper arrested for referring to a statement from Kanu headquarters as one from “an anonymous source”.
He told me that on informing President Daniel Moi of the action he had taken, the President told him it would be wiser to have the editors out for lunch instead of prosecuting them, which could bring a backlash and widen the rift and suspicions between the two institutions.
Kenya is a different place now, but the love-hate relationship remains.
May be Valentine’s Day would be a good time to ease the tension between the government and the media.