Friday, February 01, 2019

Matiang'i: Uhuru's Middle Finger To The Constitution

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s recent elevation of Fred Matiang’i to “chief” of the Cabinet Secretaries has been widely interpreted as a swipe against his deputy, William Ruto. While there may be some truth in that, it feels like once again the country is missing the wood for the trees. The appointment is also a swipe against the constitution itself, part an unrelenting assault that the President and his party have mounted on the document since their campaign for office in 2013.

To understand why this is the case, one needs to think back to the illegal deportation of Miguna Miguna, the self- declared “General” of the National Resistance Movement. Many will recall that this action, which came in the aftermath of Raila Odinga’s mock swearing in at the end of January, precipitated standoffs between the Executive and the Judiciary, with the former disobeying multiple court orders to produce him in court and return his Kenyan passport.

In December, the High Court ruled on Miguna’s constitutional challenge to the government’s action and agreed in toto with him. In fact, Justice Chacha Mwita found that Matiang’i, as well as the Inspector General of Police, Joseph Boinnet and Immigration Permanent Secretary, Gordon Kihalangwa, had violated the rule of law, the constitution and that their conduct amounted to abuse of their office. The constitution prescribes that such conduct is grounds for removal from office, not promotion.

This is the context in which we should understand President Kenyatta’s actions. He has basically flashed the constitution his middle finger and, by so rewarding, rather than firing, one who has so callously violated it, demonstrated his own contempt for the document and the institutions and standards it establishes.

This contempt has been on display even before he became President. It was his and Ruto’s candidacy for the highest office while indicted for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court that made a nonsense of the constitution’s prescriptions on leadership and integrity. Today, he appears completely oblivious of the irony when he says that no person charged or implicated in corruption will get a State appointment until they are cleared, as a measure of dealing with graft.

But it is not only the President who is at fault. The constitution give Parliament the duty of oversight over Cabinet Secretaries and MPs can initiate a process for removing those that are guilty of gross misconduct. Yet to date, there has been no attempt to probe Matiangi’s conduct or even calls for his resignation or removal. Neither has any of the MPs raised their voice in protest at his elevation except in as much as it concerns the fortunes of Ruto.

The media, too, has not shown any particularly interest in rocking the political boat, instead preferring to let the politicians take the rudder. As always, the press has been entrance by the drama of of our personalized political contests (and especially the fate of Ruto’s ambitions to succeed Kenyatta) and are blind to the substance of the issues such contests skirt around. Quite the contrary, the media has been only too keen to lionize Matiangi’ and to present him as the savior of the wananchi, rather than the dangerous lawbreaker he is.

And we have been here before. In 2004, it was the late John “The Crusher” Michuki who was all the rage, the media again doing little to question his methods and motivations. They would pay dearly for that when he would authorize the 2006 raid on the Standard premises and order a news black out in the wake of the violence that followed the 2007 election.

Finally, failed by their representatives and kept singularly uninformed by the press, Kenyans have also been unable, even unwilling, to recognize the threat that allowing the several arms of government to subvert the constitution poses. After more than a century of governmental repression both before and after independence, the arrangements and duties in the 2010 constitution were primarily aimed at achieving one thing that its predecessor had failed to do: to bring the Leviathan to heel. That failure inaugurated half a century of brutal, murderous and kleptocratic regimes.

Yet nearly a decade after Kenyans voted overwhelmingly to adopt it, the constitution faces a similar fate: amended or simply ignored into irrelevance. And with no one to stand for it, this is a fight the constitution cannot win.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Kenya vs NYT is not about press freedom. But it could be.

The New York Times decision to publish graphic images of victims of Tuesday’s terror attack at Dusit D2 Hotel in Nairobi and the backlash it has engendered online have sparked furious debates about everything from the perceived racism of the foreign press, to media ethics and the limits of press freedom.

Many shades of opinion have been expressed with some seeing the photographs and the NYT’s refusal to take them down as a continuation of violence against the victims and their families, and as evidence of racist double-standards in the reporting on terrorist atrocities. Others have opposed the torrent of personal abuse and calls for deportation visited on incoming NYT bureau chief, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura following her initial tone-deaf and seemingly dismissive responses to complaints on social media. Now threats by the state in the guise of the Media Council of Kenya to revoke or suspend her and her colleagues’ media accreditation if the Times did not remove the images and issue an unconditional apology have also opened up a regulatory can of worms.

Photographs of deceased victims of terror attacks strike a particularly sensitive chord in Kenya and it is not just the foreign media that has found itself on the receiving end of a social media backlash. Following the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall, in which 68 people lost their lives, the Sunday Nation was excoriated and forced to apologize after it published on its front page a gory photo of bloodied and screaming woman. Three years ago, the government arrested and threatened to prosecute bloggers for circulating pictures of dead Kenyan soldiers following the overrunning of their base in Somalia.

While extremely sensitive, it is not one that lessens Kenyans’ general commitment to press freedom. Fifteen months after Westgate, many were outraged when the government rammed through Parliament amendments to security laws that included a prohibition on the publication or broadcast of images of terror victims without the consent of both the police and the victim. The law was later struck down by the courts which ruled it infringed on the constitutional guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression.

Media editors also have to contend with evolving community standards and attitudes as well as social media’s empowering of audiences to forcefully express themselves. Two decades ago, in what seems a completely different era, graphic images of victims of the 1998 bombing of the of the US Embassy in Nairobi in which 224 people died, caused little uproar. And while pictures of victims of state violence do not always attract the same umbrage, the traumatizing and, in many ways, uniting effect of terror incidents gives their expression particular force.

It is within this context that we must understand the reaction to the publication of the photographs. The New York Times claims it was motivated by the need “to give our readers around the world a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this”. However, many are not buying it, pointing out that, despite the paper’s assertions to the contrary, similar standards are rarely applied to white and US victims. In a telling interview explaining the Dusit D2 decision, Meaghan Looram, the NYT’s director of photography admitted that she could not recall seeing pictures of victims of school shootings in the US and the need to abandon historical notions that “may have applied different standards to material from locations broadly thought to be remote or “over there,” rather than close to home.”

But it is these same racist notions that have seen the paper refuse to bring down the offending photograph despite over 14,000 people signing a petition for it to do so. That this demand is being made by ordinary Kenyans is what should matter. It is not about censorship by the state. Rather, Kenyans are demanding that the folks at the New York Times choose humanity over their editorial policy. It should be a no-brainer.

The stand-off with the MCK is thus unnecessary. But it does have rather toxic implications for press freedom in Kenya. Not only does it make it easier for the state to isolate and target the foreign press corps, something it has previously done, but giving the government a taste of the power to decide what content media can carry could whet its appetite for more. As was demonstrated with the 2014 security laws amendments and again with a shutdown of local private broadcasters for a week last year, this is no idle threat.

So, for the sake of humanity and press freedom, the Times must take down the photo. And an apology would be nice too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How to Talk About Terror Attacks

The attack on the Dusit D2 hotel complex seems frighteningly familiar. From the images of people crouching along flower beds as gunshots ring out, to the smoke billowing from the top of the building, to the report of people hiding in rooms from terrorists, it feels like a rerun of the attack on the Westgate Mall in September, 2013.

There are crucial differences though. The government's response was much faster and appeared much better coordinated than it was at Westgate. The government communications are also much better managed, if not exactly more informative - at least the confusion of five years ago has not been repeated.

However, some things have sadly remained the same. The media coverage, for example, has largely consisted on regurgitating the government line and especially urging Kenyans to desist from sharing information that the state has not verified. This has been taken to ridiculous extremes, with analysts on one TV news station warning that terming the attack a terrorist act before the government declares it to be one is aiding the terrorists. On social media, there is talk of the circulation of fake pictures and news as well as constant admonitions against sharing anything. As KTN's Lindah Oguttu put it, "the less you say, the better". 

Given the country's long familiarity with attacks, especially since 2011, you would think that Kenyans would have figured out a way to talk about and around ongoing operations against terrorists. Yet across both mainstream and social media, the message is the same - follow the government's lead. This is despite the state's equally long record of lying and obfuscation during and after terrorist attacks. Rather than keeping the public informed, its primary goal has been to deflect any criticism and pre-empt any calls for accountability.

For example, nearly everything government officials said about Westgate turned out to be false. In fact, while the attack itself was done and the attackers either dead or had escaped by the evening of the first day, the security forces maintained an elaborate fiction of fighting terrorists while they systematically looted the mall for three days.

Today's attack comes on the third anniversary of the sacking of a camp manned by the Kenyan contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia during which at least 173 Kenyan troops were killed. Once again, the government's rendition of the facts surrounding the attack turned out to be largely a work of fiction. To date, it has refused to disclose the exact number of casualties and its initial descriptions of facing 3 massive truck bombs and "truckloads of suicide bombers" were designed to exaggerate the scale of the attack  in order to explain away the fact that the camp had been overrun.

It is thus clear that the government cannot be trusted to provide accurate information on terror attacks. While it is equally true that the unmitigated spread of information among citizens, especially through  social media, can harm security operations, when the government makes appeals for restraint, it is hard not to think of its past lies and to wonder what it is trying to hide this time.

Thus a discussion of how better to report on, or speak about, ongoing operations against terrorists must begin with addressing the state's mendacity. For as long as the government refuses to consistently deal truthfully and honestly with its citizens, it will be folly to ask them to ignore their suspicions of its motives. In any case, the idea that following an attack, citizens must suspend their thinking faculties, and blindly and unquestioningly support the government's every whim, is the very definition of being terrorized.

And it is not a very smart thing to do either.