The evolution of journalism in Kenya is intrinsically tied to the nation\’s development saga at the political and socio-economic levels. And, although the profession is only 110 years old in this country and African participation did not start until 1920s – with Jomo Kenyatta\’s pamphleteering Mwiguithania on the land question – the distance travelled is both evolutionary and revolutionary.
Along the way there have been media greats whose careers were iconic and whose influence continues to inspire, among them the photojournalist Mohamed Mo Amin, Hilary Boniface Ng\’weno, the first African Editor-in-Chief of the Nation Group and later a media mogul in his own, and veteran writer Philip Ochieng\’, easily the best-read operative of our journalism sector ever and a towering intellect from whom we draw wise counsel.
In the colonial days there emerged a cadre of committed indigenous African and Asian-Kenyan journalists who set up their own edited publications that contributed constructively to this country\’s struggle for independence through unswerving activism and agitation.
The legendary Mo Amin came from the Kenyan Asian community and rose to become our greatest photojournalist yet, acquiring a global reputation along the way. The combination of Mo Amin (photographer) and Brian Tetley (writer) produced some of the most superb coffee table books and TV documentaries to be produced about and in Kenya.
It was Amin who brought to the world\’s attention the immense tragedy of the 1984 Ethiopian Famine by living among the quick and the dying and the dead, capturing their agony on film. These images led straightaway to the Live Aid global harambee event held simultaneously in a number of Western capitals. It brought together the entertainment elite of music, cinema and theatre and millions of their fans, and televised live around the world for a then record-breaking audience of two billion. The hit song \’We Are the World\’ was the anthem of this global effort to rescue Ethiopia.
The reason it took so long for Africans to enter journalism and make their mark was, of course, the colour bar system – a form of apartheid – imposed by the racist colonial order in which whites were number one, Asians second class, coloureds (mixed race) number three and the indigenous Africans – the majority – brought up the rear at number four.
The biggest events of the 20th century were captured most vividly, memorably and powerfully by media – Mau Mau; Uhuru; the nation-building project; the Kenyatta political phenomenon and persona as Father of the Nation; the milestone assassinations of 1965-75 (from Pio Pinto to JM Kariuki); Kenyatta\’s death; the Moi phenomenon and political persona, particularly its abrasive relationship with the press and his ultimate status as a media owner; the two-decade clamour for multi-partyism.
Electronic media – the rise of radio, from the 1930s to the present day, and the coming of television at Independence – have now joined online media to create one of the great revolutions of Kenya\’s journalism.
In the 21st century, whose second decade has just begun, two of Kenya\’s biggest multimedia houses, the Standard Group and the Nation Media Group, have, respectively, celebrated a centennial and a half-centennial.
The 2002 and 2007 general elections, the post-election violence, the peace process, the new Constitution and the New Kenya were captured captivatingly by the media. Along the way, there have been eccentricity and near-genius as well as intrusive political interference; great achievements and innovations; outstanding sacrifice and incredible greed and extortionate behaviour.
But when the history of journalism in Kenya is ultimately chronicled, two classic cases will stand out, one of eccentricity and brilliance of a practitioner from the early 1980s, the other one of surpassing newsroom greed in the early 1990s.
The cigar smoking, pistol packing and bow-tied George Githii took editorial writing to another level. His powerful editorials, laced with pithy French and Latin phrases to sharpen his points, are still classics to this day. Githii\’s mastery of the English language and courage in publishing what he believed in was remarkable.
The last editorial he wrote as Editor-in-Chief of the Standard, in early 1982, had the one-party Parliament in uproar – his best friend and mentor, the then Attorney General, denying him almost as strongly as Peter denied the Lord three times before the crowing of the cockerel, lost him his last editorial chair in Kenya, and saw his employers bring out a Special Edition of the paper to announce his sacking in a Page One splash story!
The offending editorial was on the then highly volatile subject of detention without trial. Parliament rose as one to condemn Githii for the elegant but hard-hitting piece, and even Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who had just had lunch and cigars with Githii that very day, joined in the chorus of disapproval. Njonjo characterised the editorial on the floor of the House as the work of someone of unsound mind.
The Standard Group itself felt constrained to bring out a Special Edition at midday on the day Githii was fired as Editor-in-Chief and a company director, announcing the sacking. This was – and remains – unprecedented in the history of Kenyan journalism. And yet the Githii editorial was essentially and incontrovertibly correct in denouncing detention without the due process. Barely three weeks later, the August 1, 1982, coup attempt happened, to justify the contention that the media is always the voice of the people.
The moral of these narratives of Kenya\’s media is that freedom and the democratic space that we of the media enjoy today did not come on a silver platter; it took sweat and blood and, at times, greater sacrifices were made to define the path of journalism. The best way to honour the past heroes and heroines of this profession is to remain true to the values of accuracy, objectivity and independence of mind at all times.
(The writer is the Information Secretary of the Republic of Kenya. email:emutua @information.go.ke)