The belief that Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution would finally liberate the country from dictatorship was shattered last month when an Egyptian judge handed out a seven-year sentence to three Al Jazeera journalists, who were merely reporting on events in that country.
The journalists, including Nairobi-based Peter Greste, were accused of aiding Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that is associated with former President Morsy, who was illegally ejected from government by the military. The verdict has been universally condemned as being unconstitutional and a severe blow to press freedom.
The case against the Al Jazeera journalists has made me appreciate much more the press freedoms we enjoy in Kenya (though there are danger signs that they may be slowly eroded).
It may not always seem that way, but the Kenyan media is among the most vibrant and free in the world. Journalists in places such as Turkey, Somalia, Cuba and China enjoy much less freedom than journalists in Kenya.
It was not always this way. When I started my journalistic career in the 1980s, there was little room for diverse opinions. Under the one-party state of Daniel arap Moi, journalists were often labelled traitors who produced seditious material. Many newspapers and magazines were banned or bankrupted.
The offices of the magazines, such as Society, which were perceived to be anti-government, were regularly raided. Journalists, such as the satirist Wahome Mutahi, were jailed. Others went into exile, or abandoned journalism altogether to pursue less life-threatening careers.
However, while the one-party state could control, to a certain extent, what journalists could or could not report, and even though self-censorship was the modus operandi of most news outlets, Moi’s government could not entirely suppress or kill the publishing industry.
Magazines such as the Weekly Review, Parents and Viva thrived under Moi, as did the country’s leading newspapers.
With the introduction of multipartyism in 1992, new life was breathed into the media. Paul Kelemba (aka Maddo) produced the very first cartoon of Moi — and was not arrested for it.
The hugely popular satirical comedy show Reddykyulass made fun of the entire political class — and got away with it. The XYZ show has done the same, and as far as I know, is not facing any censorship issues. Kenya’s columnists and commentators remain among the boldest on the continent.
PROFESSIONALISM AND NEUTRALITY
During the Kibaki administration, the media became even bolder. I wrote my first column for this newspaper during that period, and I am grateful for this space. It is a huge privilege and responsibility and I take it extremely seriously. The column is my safety valve; it alleviates some of the madness that often threatens to overwhelm me during these unpredictable times.
Apart from the occasional hate mail from readers, I have not faced serious challenges, though in recent months I have felt an invisible pressure to “keep the peace” and “move on” even in the face of catastrophe.
I also believe that investigative journalism has suffered under an increasing corporatised media, where the bottom line and shareholder interests play an increasingly important part in determining the news agenda.
Nonetheless, I have to say that the Kenyan media still maintains a level of professionalism and neutrality that is rare in many other countries.
Of course, we are still not where we should be in terms of journalistic standards and impartiality. Media coverage of the 2013 elections, everyone will agree, bordered on self-censorship and selective reporting. Coverage of the Westgate mall attack also left audiences and readers wondering whether our journalists had enough knowledge and experience to cover a major disaster. Kenya’s coverage of issues related to neighbouring Somalia have been appallingly ill-informed.
However, when I think of what has happened to the Al Jazeera journalists and others around the world, I am grateful for the press freedoms we enjoy. Kenyan media may not be the best or the most thorough in the world, but it has relative freedom.
Opinions like mine are not crushed by editors in the pockets of the establishment. That has to be a good thing. It has to be a thing worth protecting.