Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British writer, once said, ‘What is freedom of expression? Without freedom to offend it ceases to exist.' Equally, Noam Chomsky, an American linguist and activist, was quoted saying, ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.’ We trigger off our argument based on the above quotes and by reflecting them against the face of governance and politics in Kenya.
Freedom of expression is a basic foundation of democracy – it is a core freedom without which democracy could not exist. The word 'democracy' is not limited to having a just governance or freedom of expression within political circles, but stretches to the right to express one’s views on any platform.
For instance, democracy is the very reason why students form unions, within which they voice their concerns to the relevant authorities. At the college level, we often see unrest when students’ right to freedom of expression is suppressed. This can be equated to the analogy of a cat whose tail is stepped on. The first time the cat will yell, the second time it will perhaps yell louder and the mammal might not get to the third time before it launches a scathing attack at its offender. This scenario is replicated at the working-class level, be it in white-collar jobs or the informal sector. The recent strike by Kenya Airways staff is but a reminder that, when workers fail to get an audience when expressing themselves, they will seek any avenue to get heard. In other words, freedom of expression carries with it a force that only tones down when one's concern or thought is voiced. It is a must-do; if diplomacy fails people use force to get heard.
In a civilised society, we find that most of those who are denied a chance to express themselves incognito tend to get ‘additional mouths’ to voice their concerns. An example is the case of the cold-blooded murder of Oscar King’ara, an activist and student and the founder of the Oscar Foundation. The Oscar Foundation and human rights watchdogs tried in vain to conduct ‘proper and thorough’ investigations into the murder. Most Kenyans know what happened next when students of Nairobi University took to the streets in the name of peaceful demonstrations.
It is unfortunate that there are people who at times go out of their way to risk their lives (although it is not clear if they get paid for their daring stunts) just to express themselves. On 12 December 2008, in a well-choreographed move, Fredrick Odhiambo sneaked his way into the VIP area at Nyayo National Stadium and sat less than 10 metres behind President Mwai Kibaki. It is from this point that Odhiambo shouted down the president as he delivered his speech to the nation. Again, the fourth estate had tried in vain to persuade the president not to append his signature to the communications of the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act that contained offensive clauses. Indeed, Fredrick Odhiambo made it be known to the president that the act was not welcome in the form that it had been drafted in.
A closer look at the interactions between the first family and people who may appear to criticise them reveals a strange pattern. Renowned laywer Paul Muite found himself in a bitter exchange of words with the first family when he told the press that a powerful minister had testified before a commission and touched on details of President Kibaki and his wife. Another lawyer and member of parliament of Imenti South, Gitobu Imanyara, also found himself nearly in trouble when he publicly made comments that he had been assaulted by the first lady. These gentlemen later told the press that they had been threatened with death just because they spoke out.
Going down the hierarchy of leadership from presidency to the cabinet, Labour Minister John Munyes was not given a chance to deliver his Labour Day speech on 1 May 2009. Members of the public wanted him to explain what the government was doing around the creation of employment and new guidelines for minimum wages. In our opinion, workers used this platform to express their anger over the slow pace in which the government is addressing their plight. Again, it begs the question why those who attended the celebrations at Uhuru Park opted to shout out and not use the workers union?
At the legislators level, it is evident that the newly launched XYZ TV comedy show has rubbed politicians, MPs and especially sitting MPs the wrong way. The creator of the unique African political satire has sought to show how politicians – mostly Kenyan politicians – tackle issues of public interest. To be frank, the creator, Gado, has been concentrating more on the goofs. The packaging style is blunter and questions some of the politicians’ leadership capabilities. It is no wonder that with the show having been aired for scarcely two months, it is now being threatened with suspension, if not a ban.
Recall the dictatorial regime of President Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 24 years at a time when freedom of the press and freedom of expression was almost killed through unwarranted censorship of the media. But when President Kibaki took office, the reverse seemed to happen. However, do recent events signify that Kenya is slowly degenerating back into a state where its citizens’ mouths remain gagged at all levels?
It should not be taken for granted that 15 years ago a wave of change swept through much of Africa and that this wave brought with it two fundamental changes: competitive multiparty politics and the liberalisation of the media's playing field. In Kenya and other parts of the world, we cannot afford to sit back and see journalists threatened and thrown out in the manner Robert Mugabe expelled BBC journalists, nor have international humanitarian aid agencies withdrawn, as was the case when they criticised the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir. Let everyone have a chance to speak out.
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* This article is compiled by Africa Free Media Trust, a media and human rights non-governmental organization working mainly in Kenya.
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