The Nation, Kenya’s local newspaper, was embroiled in controversy yesterday after a Senior Editor, Denis Galava, was sacked for allegedly breaching established procedures of the company. He was accused of writing an editorial heavily criticising Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, without the approval of the newspaper’s Editor-in-chief, Tom Mshindi. However, Galava disputed the reason for his dismissal, “I didn’t do anything unusual from what I normally do whenever writing editorials because there are no established procedures,” he explained. He also claimed his sack “…was a case of political and business expediency.”
This development comes on the heels of a report published by the Human Rights Watch last week talking about media repression and threats concerning free expression in Uganda, a neighbouring country.
Uganda has a history of media repression. In 2013 journalists taped their mouths in protest of censorship. Uganda’s Independent Newspaper was shut down last Monday after policemen stormed its premises. The company’s offence: Publishing a purported plot by Uganda’s long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni, to groom his son for the presidency. Human Rights Watch branded the lock down a plot to “keep the people uninformed”, an apt description considering Uganda’s presidential elections start next month. A news report about how his son may be replacing him as president would have certainly hurt Museveni’s chances of being re-elected next month.
However, this trend is not limited to Kenya and Uganda alone. The federal government in other East African countries like Burundi and Rwanda have been accused, by different human rights groups, of repressing the press and limiting media freedom. Rwanda was compared to the former Soviet Union by a Russian U.N worker based in the country in the aftermath of the 2010 elections. The mannerism of newspaper reports, the ‘happiness’ about Paul Kagame’s re-election suggested there were political repressions similar to that of the Soviet Union that ended in 1991. Meanwhile Burundi’s media was all but shut down last year after it criticised Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to contest for a third term in office, a move many considered unconstitutional. The conflict between the state and the media became a pre-cursor to the humanitarian disaster presently occurring in Burundi.
The obstruction of free expression and media reporting hints at a bigger issue; the presence of leaders whose characters are akin to dictators. Their time in power has seemingly given them authority to the end any form of criticism. This avenue the press uses frequently to oppose oppressive governments, is seen as a threat to their “throne” and therefore must be quashed. However, this form of repression is likely to backfire on the governments involved, as seen in Burundi.
East African nations need to get it right, or this could signify the beginning of a mini “Arab spring” in the region as such movements usually begin with the agents of the media. Events like this only highlight the fact that the will of the people is not always the will of its government.