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February 23, 2019

Parliament Should Not Kill The Freedom Of Expression

Members of parliament and senate at the parliament gallery during the opening of the 11th parliament. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Members of parliament and senate at the parliament gallery during the opening of the 11th parliament. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

As Parliament passes the forthcoming media bill, it should remember Kenya and her development require more, not less freedom of the media.

MPs may deny, but the intention of the media bill is to curtail freedom of the press – radio, television and newspapers – that are not owned by those in power and may take critical positions on important national questions, by shutting down, forbidding critical media coverage and stories, and punishing media houses and journalists who dare with prohibitive fines.

These measures against media have only one purpose – introducing legal censorship and with it, death of a free media.

Needless to say, media freedom, freedom of expression and general freedom are all interrelated and what curtails freedom of the press will also curtail freedom of expression and general freedom in society.

If the media bill passes, it will gag the media and silence the entire nation.

As a victim of media self-censorship and government censorship, it is a betrayal of conscience, connivance and collaboration with enemies of freedom, to observe introduction of government censorship of media and not say a word. Collaborationist silence will certainly kill the man in us.

As censorship takes shape under the new constitution and Jubilee government, a problem that belongs to the whole nation should not be seen as a problem for the media alone. A move against the media puts the entire country into danger and classic situation of the proverbial rat trap that caught the intended and the un-intended when the goat, the cockerel and the cow all refused to help the rat set off the farmer’s rat trap but ended up being slaughtered for mourners when the trap caught a snake that bit and killed the farmer. Other people’s problems that we refuse to help solve are bound to catch up with us.

MPs due to pass this bill must remember how under one party dictatorship, a censored press – the East African Standard – helped to emasculate parliament by urging the Executive to detain MPs and others who were critical of government: “It will not do for them to plead that they should be sent to hell for a thousand years only, and then be allowed out. They sold their bodies and souls to the devil for a leg of mutton – uncooked, signed, sealed and delivered – and now they belong, permanently, to the devil and his representatives, not to Kenya.”

It was also a censored and cowed media that published President Moi’s unforgettable edict of 13th September 1984 silencing even ministers of the one party dictatorship: “I call on all ministers, assistant ministers and every other person to sing like parrots. During Mzee Kenyatta’s period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune until people said: “This fellow has nothing to say, except to sing for Kenyatta.” I said: “I did not have ideas of my own. Why was I to have my own ideas? I was in Kenyatta’s shoes and, therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted. If I had sang another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it.”

What MPs sow, they will reap – someday when the dictatorship they are yearning for will be a reality.

When any government makes a move against the media, it is to make it toe the line and through it, the whole country.

But to gag the media and seek to make it toe the line willy-nilly, the government will have become a dictatorship that is not ready for a national debate with the media or anybody else but would rather, through media, force everybody to follow suit and conform.

Introduction of media bill to parliament should forewarn and suggest to us an even greater danger from government planning to transform itself into a dictatorship.

Undoubtedly, dictatorship is greater danger to everybody than media bill and should get everybody worried. Anybody who sees danger but wont worry is certainly suicidal.

But people who emasculate media, silence people and become dictatorship do not do so for nothing – it is to hide something whose exposure they fear might cost them reputation and power.

A government afraid of a free media is first and foremost afraid of criticism which could make it unpopular and lose power. For this government, things that could make it unpopular may have to do with a rise in the cost of living.

The government might also want to control media from fear of what the trials at The Hague might reveal when the trials at ICC commence.

Lastly, a government that wants to keep power but does not mind benefiting from corruption will also find itself compelled to control media.

Media bill is dangerous for many reasons. It will kill media. It will kill freedom of expression that we fought so hard for. It will kill democracy. There can be no democracy without a free press and freedom of expression.

By curtailing our freedom, media freedom is also a great danger to the new constitution which is premised on enhancing our freedom. Any action that is anti-freedom is also unconstitutional and not allowable.

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