Playing it safe to publish
Veteran journalist looks back on his career and the dicey ties with State House in the era of single-party repression
Sunday Nation December 29, 2002
All heads of government have a boiling hatred for independent and free newspapers. President Moi has been no exception– he had a bottomless dislike for the Press. For me, he is a special case only because he is the head of the government I have been closest to as an Editor.
For three years (1988-91), I was the Editor-in-Chief of the Kenya Times (KT), an organ of the ruling party over which he had direct and often dictatorial policy control.
I had also worked for President Julius Nyerere (in Dar es Salaam's Daily News) and President Milton Obote (in an erstwhile Kampala weekly called Sunday Times). But I had never had as much direct contact with them.
In 1988 the prudes of State House began having big problems with Kenya Times group Managing Editor Ted Graham, who had just been seconded thereafter the paper had gone into partnership with Robert Maxwell of London's Mirror Group.
Graham had insisted on importing every Fleet Street licentiousness, including hardly authenticated state crimes, a lot of muckraking and gory sex – all complete with pictures of nude women on page three.
I was Managing Editor of the Daily Nation when Kenya Times chairman Jared Kangwana invited me to take over. After a meeting with the President at State House, Mombasa, I accepted.
Why did I agree to leave a much more secure job on a much more established and much more independent newspaper? Since memory is so selective, many people do not recall that, in those days, it did not matter a whit.
Kenya was a single-party state. And the single-party boss had become almighty, all-knowing, all-loving. For a good 10 years, everybody sang hallelujah to everything he did. Whatever he said, Cicero never spoke better!
How was this unity by attrition reflected in the newspapers? George Mbugguss and Joe Kadhi will testify that, we at the Nation, strained our necks as much as did Kenya Times before publishing a certain category of headlines.
Mitch Odero and Ali Hafidh will corroborate that whenever State House wanted any story killed, The Standard killed it with as much alacrity as did the Kenya Times. Hilary Ng'weno and Sarah Elderkin of The Weekly Review might also admit it.
If you looked at it with the simplistic eyes of liberal American newspaper editors – who claim that they cannot take part in any form of censorship – you might say that we, the editors of the independent press, were lily-livered cowards.
There was certainly much of that. Yet there was also much practical wisdom in what we did. KANU had never been an ideological party. And at independence, it had dropped all its Nationalist pretenses at journalism.
It hoped we can now say, to get along by patronising the editors of the independent press. Such famous editors as George Githii, Joe Rodrigues and Henry Gathigira often said with pride that, though free to criticise the Kenyatta Government, their publications were "development partners".
At the beginning, we were robust enough with our editorial and personal criticisms of the Kenyatta system, Ng’weno blazing the trail with a stinging column in the Sunday Nation in the mid-l960s.
By the beginning of the eighties, however, several years after Mr Moi had taken over, the reluctant tolerance which the euphoria of independence had forced on the Government was coming to an abrupt end.
In 1981, Mr Njonjo declared the Nation a Government enemy merely because Editor-in-Chief Rodrigues insisted that we carry completely objective reports on a court case in which Andrew Muthemba, a first cousin of the Minister, was accused of plotting to overthrow Mr Moi.
Sometime that year, five senior editors – Rodrigues, Managing Editor Kadhi, myself (Chief Sub-Editor) and senior reporters Gideon Mulaki and Pius Nyamora – were hurled into police cells where we rotted for long days.
Our sin was that Rodrigues had written an editorial urging the Moi Government to allow Jaramogi Oginga Odinga his full democratic rights when the dreaded dissident of Nationalist fame announced he would contest a parliamentary seat in a by-election.
KANU headquarters issued an unsigned response which Nyamora correctly described as "anonymous". We came to know that flak on a rival newspaper poisoned Mr Njonjo's mind by telling him that, by "anonymous", we meant that the President was a "non-person"!
A year a later, the Moi-Njonjo power group prevailed on The Standard's board to fire Editor-in-Chief George Githii on the spot because he had published an editorial attacking the Government for trying to shut the mouths of those "trained to handle ideas".
He was referring not only to newspaper editors but to the intelligentsia as a whole. He himself had hitherto been a fierce Government hawk. But the intensifying police state was beginning to interfere even with the special licence he was enjoying through his personal link with Mr Njonjo.
Throughout the eighties, journalists were among hundreds of intellectuals arrested and tortured for months in police dens in connection with a subterranean putschist movement which, itself, was taking credit for a series of terroristic attacks on the railway system.
Thus, by the end of the eighties, our backs had been broken. The old Fleet Street maxim "Publish and be damned" was no longer thinkable.
As long as this was the situation, the independent Press now habitually took care not to antagonise the Government unduly. With Mr Njonjo as the eminence grise, President Moi became more and more tyrannical and ban-happy.
So we took the attitude that it was much more beneficial to censor ourselves and live to serve another day than to dare the devil and die forever – to exploit the latitude we enjoyed, exceedingly narrow as it was, than to be muzzled altogether. Where, indeed, would the Nation now be had it allowed itself to be proscribed?
It was with that attitude that I went to KT. For, in any case, it needed a professional leg-up much more than the Nation did. For the first two years, indeed, self-restraint – much more than direct orders from State House – was the norm.
Of course, the President (or one of his aides) often called to order us either to trash a story or to use one.
I remember receiving a call from State House Controller Abraham Kiptanui – who was never as nice and as easy to talk to as the President – who called me names because I had splashed a story saying KANU had chosen Mrs Francisca Otete as Maendeleo ya Wanawake's next chairperson.
The seat had been contested fiercely throughout the day between her and Mrs Wilkista Onsando. In reality, however, the contest had been between KANU stalwart Lawrence Sagini and security chief Hezekiah Oyugi.
It depended on who was for the moment politically the more important one for the President. Mr Oyugi called me at 9 pm to say the President had latched on Mrs Otete. And, so we went home knowing we had scooped the other papers.
But I should have known better. For with the President, there was never any long-term policy. Decisions were always taken from moment to moment. At 9 Mr Oyugi had been right. But then the other side had not given up and, by midnight, Mr Moi had changed his mind for Mrs Onsando.
However, it was too late for us. We hit the street with the wrong story. The other newspapers, not being privity to what was happening, carried stories to the effect that the fight was still on.
Early KT copies had reached the President's house at 4 am and he had called Mr Kiptanui to order me to change the story. When I told him that that it was impossible, he uttered some expletives and banged the phone on me.
The President himself was never so overbearing and impervious to reason. I was told he could explode when angry. But I always found him charming, chatty, jocund and amenable to reason.
I would say: "Yes, sir" whenever he called me to spike or use a story. "But, sir," I would hasten to add, "listen to the possible consequences."
I would then go on to explain my point. He would listen patiently and then, after a moment of consideration, he would say: "Oh, all right, let me give it more thought and call you back."
He would never himself call back. If no call came back at all, you knew you had won. You knew he had discussed it with his closest aides and they had seen the wisdom of your interpretation.
If a call came back, it would be from Mr Kiptanui (or later Franklin Bett), and you knew you had lost the battle. I can report that, in this way, I won as many battles as I lost.
I am told that my counterparts in the independent newspapers lost every battle by not arguing back.
Then, in 1990, two events took place to harden State House even more: the multi-party demand erupted and, to give it impetus, Foreign Minister Robert Ouko was assassinated in circumstances which seemed to incriminate the Government.
For the Press, it had at least three consequences. It emboldened the hitherto timid independent upmarket newspapers into beginning to reject "directives" and "advice" from State House.
It gave rise to a proliferation of anti-Government "alternative press" – including Society, The People, The Nairobi Law Monthly and Finance – characterised more by excitement than by information.
And it caused the Kanu hawks to demand more and more that KT toe their line completely. I began to get calls even from the likes of Joseph Kamotho, Prof Henry Mwanzi and others at the party's headquarters directing me what to do.
Power-monger Nicholas Biwott formed the habit of calling me every day to see how we were going to angle our report on the judicial inquiry into the Ouko murder.
Fortunately, we had a board, and every time one of them tried to order me about, I reminded him that I answered only to Mr Kangwana, who, for his part, told him that if he had any complaint, he should call the President.
That intimidated them for a time. But, as a politician, the President always knew what pawn to sacrifice on the chessboard and I became an easy pawn when such a time arrived.
The last straw came when we refused to withdraw a daily report called "Roll Call", a public service which had been inspired by a daily lack of quorum in Parliament. It was after a spate of MPs' visits to the President to demand my head that he asked Mr Kangwana to pay me off.
A week after my sacking, the President gave in to the pressure and there followed the famous amendment to section 2(a) of the Constitution, making Kenya a multi-party state.
And yet, at the same time, he launched a four-pronged plan to subdue the media even more.
First, there was to be no more nonsense about freedom in KT and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and they have remained totally docile ever since.
Second, he turned to personal advantage the new demand that the airwaves be liberalised. He licensed quite a few politically and financially indebted private individuals to run radio and television stations
As S.K. Macharia will testify, beneficiaries who tried to use their licences for any agenda that might harm the party and the man were hit debilitatingly hard.
Applicants, like the Nation, which owed no such debts were denied licences for a long time until ineluctable pressure forced the Government to issue one. But up to now, the Nation cannot serve beyond Nairobi.
Third, private companies connected to the President began to buy controlling shares in hitherto independent media, notably The Standard, and to wrench from the Kenya Times Media Trust ownership of the Kenya Television Network (KTN).
Fourth, the President launched a virulent and sustained oral attack on media that he could not control – really only the Nation. It was to the Group's credit that it did not rush into replying in kind – by trying to publish all the lowdown that it had on the President.
It continued to criticise the Government in clear but measured language, often even praising it and the President when it thought they deserved praise.
As we go to press, however, the President's antipathy towards the Press – notably the Nation Media Group – remains.