Leopards can’t change their spots, but chameleons…

Media flip-flop is part of chequered history behind the Kalonzo moniker

In Summary

• Opposition stalwart called for press freedom after once getting the Nation banned

A chameleon
A chameleon

Conventional wisdom says it is difficult for people to change their innate nature no matter how hard they try. Thus the saying: "A leopard can't change its spots." 

Which is why if one is going to be in politics, it is far easier to adopt the ways of a chameleon.

That sounds a touch uncharitable so instead I will allow that like all of us, politicians have the ability to evolve and thus change their minds.

Researching a different story, I came across an example of a politician whose view of media freedom has undergone something of a Damascene conversion.

That said, Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka, for it is he I speak of, has had about 30 years in which to change his view on media freedom.

Back in the dying days of the one-party state, Kalonzo was a man on the move. He had been elected to Parliament in a 1985 by-election aged 32, and had already served as an Assistant Minister.

By 1989, he had risen to be Deputy Speaker of Parliament as well as to the powerful position of Kanu’s national organising secretary.

Those were the days when any opposition to or criticism of the government was intolerable to those who were part of it.

The media tried to be as vibrant as possible. However, there was still a lot of self-censorship to avoid stepping on sensitive government or party toes.

In June 1989, the Nation group of newspapers was banned indefinitely from covering parliamentary proceedings by Parliament. 

The ban was the climax to a highly charged debate on the Daily Nation and its sister papers and management, which saw MPs accuse the group of being anti-government, disrespectful to Kenya's leadership, frustrating pro-establishment politicians and tribalism in its employment policies.

Musyoka’s motion to ban the newspaper group was passed unanimously, with Speaker Moses Keino saying he hoped other journalists had taken note and would from henceforth tread carefully.

Kalonzo, who authored the motion, claimed the Nation newspapers had persistently and deliberately misrepresented matters as discussed in Parliament, and had also tried to portray a negative image of the country by reporting about government corruption.

He accused the paper's reporters of being unpatriotic and said they had deliberately attempted to divide Kenyans and create social disorder. 

He took particular umbridge at a satirical column by Wahome Mutahi, in which the writer had dared to suggest the country was divided between the haves and have nots.

Following the ban, the directors of the Nation held an emergency meeting and came out with a statement expressing deep concern about the statements made in Parliament and promising that the accusations would be investigated.

However, Kalonzo had not finished with the newspaper yet. A week later, he claimed the Nation was carrying out a vendetta against him after publishing a photograph of him napping at a presidential function. 

The ban on the Nation was lifted four months later in October. During the debate on whether to allow the papers back in, it was noted that there had been “a marked change” in its reporting and its editorials were now toeing the party line.

Fast-forward 23 years later. In the meantime, Kenya had become a multiparty state in 1991. Kalonzo Musyoka had been appointed Foreign Minister in 1993, only to abandon Kanu in 2002 to join the opposition, which became the government, that December.

After the abomination that was the 2007 election, Kalonzo manoeuvred himself into the Vice President’s job and by now had done an about-turn on the media.

Opening a conference on Media Law in June 2012, he was now calling for greater media freedom as this would accelerate socioeconomic transformation.

By March this year, Kalonzo was being quoted as saying: “We are standing with the free media. We need to remain united and ensure that we continue to speak the truth to power. That is the only way we can ensure the country grows and the democratic space is maintained.”

Has a leopard changed its spots, or has a chameleon adapted to its environment?

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