JOE RODRIGUES was Managing Editor of the Daily Nation but he was told he could never be Editor-in-Chief because he was not black. He found out quickly that free press is not always free and that an editor’s life is not without its perils. But that changed when Daniel arap Moi became President … and Joe became Editor-in-Chief. Joe quickly found that a free press is not always free and that an editor’s life in Kenya could be dangerous.
Rodrigues told a television interviewer in 1978: “I would say without fear of contradiction that if I was to get up one day and decide I would be writing editorials attacking the head-of-state I would not last long and neither would the paper. There would be no purpose in doing that.
“I think those of us of who have been around since Independence have developed a knack or an extra sense and we are able to fathom how far we should go not how far we can go. We can go overboard, and we would be in trouble.
“The principal proprietor, the principal shareholder, has always said there is no sense in going the whole hog and criticising the establishment if in the end you are going to be banned and then you have no platform to say anything at all. So, it is better on occasion to pull your punches and not go 100 per cent of the way.
What would the government do in those circumstances? “There are always the laws of the land and they have always existed in this country as well as all others, such as sedition, libel and defamation, things like that. There is a possibility the government may decide to take to take a newspaper editor to court and charge him with sedition. In a less democratic atmosphere, editors have simply been locked up without recourse to courts of law. That can happen in many parts of Africa. The same legislative machinery also exists even in Kenya.
“President Moi has said that he is willing to tolerate the Press as long as it does not go beyond the bounds of reason. We, in newspapers, think the new government would be more receptive to the criticisms voiced in a newspaper, through the columns of a newspaper and would be responsive to those criticisms.”
But it was not long before the “Government unleashed two vitriolic attacks against the Nation and arrested six of its journalists. In early April, the political firebrand from Nyanza, Oginga Odinga, declared, ‘I clashed with President Kenyatta because he wanted to grab land and he wanted me to do the same, but I refused. That is why today I am working with President Moi, because he serves the wananchi (the people) not himself.’ Being linked to Odinga did not please the head of state, who responded that anyone who abused Kenyatta was not likely to appreciate the Nyayo Government, ‘leave alone fit in it’. (Birth of a Nation).
Odinga was banned from standing in the Bondo by-election which he certainly would have won. Rodrigues wrote an editorial which said that the decision was “unconstitutional, undemocratic and not conducive to the National compromise to which President Moi has been exhorting Kenyans.”
The government responded by accusing the Nation of trying to assume the role of an opposition party, a rebellious attitude and “selecting news on a sectarian and tribally motivated basis. It warned that the Press “must at all times avoid inciting the public over decisions that are National and collective.” Rodrigues was arrested and interrogated. The Nation published an apology of sorts, assuring the government of its support, but without actually using the word “apology”.
This was the beginning of the end for Joe Rodrigues as Editor-in-Chief and his 18-year association with the Nation.
The instance that hammered the nail into Rodrigues came with a sub-editor’s addition of the word anonymous into statement by KANU. A statement by KANU quoted him (Moi) as saying, ‘KANU is the ruling party. It is the government therefore my voice. They also want to say Moi is anonymous. (From Gerry Loughran’s Birth of a Nation).
Later that day, Joe Kadhi (Nation Managing Editor), John Esibi (acting news editor), Joe Rodrigues, Philip Ochieng (Chief sub-editor, who inserted the word) and reporters Gideon Mulaki and Pius Nyamora. Rodrigues was released 24 hours later and the others three days later. The next edition carried an “Apology to President Moi and KANU”.
Then the axe fell: On January 1, 1981, the Norfolk hotel was destroyed by a terrorist bomb killing 15 people and injuring 85 others. Palestinian terrorists were suspected because the hotel’s owner was Jewish, and Kenya had provided assistance to Israel during the Uganda hostage drama.
From “Birth of a Nation”: Joe Kadhi wrote one of his “Why?” columns, denouncing the Libyan-funded Nairobi newspaper The Voice of Africa for claiming that the bomb was planted by Israel; he also attacked the Palestine Liberation Organisation for describing Kenya as “a police station for US interventionism.” These comments were fair and in line with government policy, as Rodrigues pointed out in a letter to the board, stating ‘This country is moving closer to Israel in the intelligence and security fields and away from the Arab world. The promise of cheaper oil has not materialised and the machinations of the Voice of Africa and its Libyan backers, particularly vis-à-vis the Norfolk bomb and its aftermath, have combined to harden the government’s attitude.’ Certainly, the Nation’s attitude chimed with the prevailing political winds, but the Kadhi column was felt in some circles to have given a negative impression of Arabs generally and a barrage of complaints was directed to the Aga Khan. Since the Editor-in-Chief was responsible for all columns and commentaries, he came under fire for letting this one through.
Rodrigues was forced to resign. He said he was sacked.
OBITUARY By Brian Tetley*
His dignity and decency were as immense as his courage and integrity. Joe Rodrigues was a man among men. Though he never enjoyed the privileges that accrue from the pedigree of an expensive education and the luxury of working for a glamorous media stable, through his skills and dedication he became a world leader in the brotherhood of journalism – admired and respected everywhere that people put words to communicate news and ideas.
When he presented himself almost 30 years ago (then) as a diffident but firm young sub-editor to the Chief Sub Editor of The Nation it was as an unknown quantity in the newspaper world as Joe himself.
Together they made themselves names respected wherever newspapers are discussed.
The team of sub-editors he joined in that rumbustious end of a colonial-era could hardly have been described as the Gentlemen of the Press – the represented the drinking, wild-living “cream” of the European elite, many of them ex-Kenya policemen or settlers.
But there was no bitterness between them and young men like Joe, the late and much mourned Bob Mothusi and Joe’s two successors at The Nation George Mbugguss and Joe Kadhi.
This was the team – young gifted and well on its way to being all Black – under which the new group would prosper led eventually by Joe’s shrewd, firm but kind guidance as Editor-in-Chief while the European element was slowly phased out.
With expatriate personnel – or most of them – on a biennial whiz through Kenya, Joe soon established himself and quickly climbed to Managing Editor. It was in that position that he first shook hands with me when I began work under his stewardship in April 1968.
He was the best of a precious few.
It says everything for his character and humanity that he twice had the task of dismissing me from my job and it never even jarred the friendship which began that first day.
In the midst of everything, Joe bestowed a kind of magisterial calm – from the fluttering panic at the top to the throbbing resistance to conformity at the bottom.
Joe was among the last of the first of the few at The Nation who made the singular and sustained contribution to the paper’s phenomenal growth in its first two decades. Joe had a steadfastness of purpose and unshakable integrity.
Under him, The Nation registered not only growth but a reputation for accuracy and impartial and unmuzzled reporting, the reputation of which quickly spread beyond the shores of Africa.
A pre-eminent man in his profession, Joe endowed his paper with its own pre-eminence.
Perhaps the voice was too fearless. It was never too loud.
Joe was as much an institution with The Nation as The Nation was outside.
When he was called up to resign (Joe told colleagues later that he had been sacked) after 21 years of devoted services, he kept his distress and grief to himself. But it was plain to all of his friends and colleagues.
He found comfort in the expression of sympathy and offers of high editorial appointments from men like Harold Evans Editor of The Times of London.
By his work and his extracurricular activities – respected member of the International Press Institute whose world conference he brought to Kenya, Rotarian and humanitarian – Joe brought distinction and honour not only to The Nation but to Kenya.
Joe was a singular family man, too. His son Allan John distinguishes the dental profession in England (now in Western Australia) with the virtues he inherited from his father and his daughter Joy illuminates Australian society with something of his spirit.
No words will console his graceful widow Cyrillic. He will be the more the missed because he was so loved. But because of this, the memories which he leaves behind will endure longer.
His commitment was only to serve the truth and it is his measure that with his going Kenya as well as the cause of African journalism is the loser.
Joe Rodrigues’ death diminishes all.
*Brian Tetley, a bit of flawed genius, was one of the finest wordsmiths to have graced The Nation. He created the Mambo column (I had the honour to succeed him in writing the column). Tetley’s column which was full humour and everything else, most of it off the planet. In contrast, my efforts were a pale imitation. I will never forget his interview with Spike Milligan (of The Goons fame). Milligan, something of a genius himself, was not an easy man to interview (he never stood or sat still for a moment, in thought or deed). It was stunning and it was no surprise that the London Guardian picked it up. Brian was a terrific bloke, very caring and usually a laugh minute. When it came to writing, he was at his best after he had his medicinal two pints at the Sans Chique. I spent a lot of time with him (daylight hours) and Joe Rodrigues had riding “shotgun” on Brian… part of that was to meet at the pub and bring to the office as soon as he had finished his second. All considered he was a gem of a bloke.
And then this happened:
November 25, 1996 NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ Mohamed Amin, the cameraman who helped alert the world about the 1991 famine in Ethiopia, died in the crash of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane in the Comoros Islands, the airline said Sunday. He was 53.
Amin, who photographed and filmed both the pain and glory of Africa over three decades, was returning to his home in Nairobi from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, with colleague Brian Tetley, who often wrote for Amin’s photo books.
Tetley, 61, a veteran journalist who for many years wrote an acerbic witty column for The Nation, also died in the crash.
Amin’s images of victims of the Ethiopian famine were picked up by an American network and late broadcast worldwide, resulting an outpouring of attention and food aid. The famine Killed an estimated 1 million people.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Amin did occasional assignments for The Association Press.
Known to his friends as “Mo,” was chief executive officer of the London-based Camerapix Publishers International.
Colleagues Andrew Njoroge and Keith Hulse said Amin and Tetley were a great journalistic team. “Mo would come in with the pictures, and Brian would do the story,” Njoroge said. “They were good together.”
Amin lost an arm in 1991 in the explosion of an ammunitions dump during the Ethiopian civil war, but he continued to film and take pictures.
He is survived by his wife, Dolly, and son, Salim.
Tetley is survived by a wife and several children.