Journalists feel the heat as Kenya ramps up fight against corruption, President Kenyatta seeks divine intervention
The Kenyan media is fighting back against politicians who are determined to restrict them from exposing corrupt deals. This comes after President Uhuru Kenyatta approached the church seeking divine intervention and comfort after he lost friends who were unhappy with his stance against theft of public land.
Three weeks ago, the People Daily kicked up a firestorm when it ran a story over what it claimed was blatant bribery of members of parliament (MPs). Titled ‘House of Bribes’ (and a follow-up story titled “Bribery den: When watchdogs turn predators,”) the story included a list of specific instances where the legislators have been given cash to vote in a particular way.
The press has also had to deal with the wrath of Deputy President William Ruto, who constantly accuses members of the Fourth Estate of muckraking.
“They are only interested in making money, hence, the headlines which are all propaganda,” Ruto said. He says he was offended by continued reports of splits in the ruling Jubilee Coalition.
The Parliament's reaction was fast and furious. Member Dr. Robert Pukose petitioned House Speaker, Justin Muturi, to take stern action against the two People Daily parliamentary reporters, Anthony Mwangi and Dinah Ondari. He wanted the journalists to be compelled to name their sources for the story.
“Many colleagues may not have any problem if there was any evidence or one iota of proof to support the sensational story. However, it was a blanket condemnation of all the 416 Members of the National Assembly and the Senate calling them 'predators'. This is an insult to the entire House and it is not acceptable." said Pukose.
"Even though Article 34 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the media, that freedom must come with responsibility. Freedom on one party should not mean maligning other people. It is unfair for the newspaper to hide under parliamentary privilege which has been provided by this House to attack the same House,” he continued.
Under Parliament’s standing orders, reporters are covered by the same powers and privileges afforded the MPs. This means that no legal action can be taken against a reporter for writing about what happens in Parliament.
However, Mr. Pukose believes the speaker should summon the two reporters with the intent to sanction them. The media brotherhood is not taking this lying down. In a quick response, the Kenya Union of Journalists Secretary-General, Eric Oduor, dismissed the MPs’ grievances arguing that journalists were working in the interest of the public and must be allowed to continue with their work, unhindered. If not, that those feeling aggrieved should have the right to go to court.
Ahead of the planned grilling, Oduor rallied all journalists to stage a protest at parliament buildings: "Carry your camera, recorder, pens and note books to show solidarity with Anthony Mwangi and Dinah Ondari. Parliament is not a court of law. I know they will not allow us in. Let us camp outside there. Solidarity forever.” He maintains that KUJ wanted unfettered access to parliament.
“We wish to bring to the attention of Mr Muturi that sources in journalism are sacred and that no journalist should be forced or intimidated to reveal them. We urge him to work closely with journalists to protect integrity of the House instead of waging a war with members of the Fourth Estate who have a critical role to play in parliamentary proceedings,” Oduor protested.
The Vice-Chair of the Media Council of Kenya, Victor Bwire, insists that parliament has no business grilling the journalists. “We have at the Media Council arbitration mechanisms which those aggrieved can use instead of the path the legislators have chosen,” said Bwire.
The former Managing Editor at the People Daily, Maina Muiruri, defended the two reporters saying they were thorough professionals. Known in news circles as the ‘Bishop’ because of strong Christian stand, Muiruri said, "When the two appear before the committee I will also appear in solidarity with you as PD managing editor emeritus. I taught them the craft and I owe it to my charges to exercise their press freedom. Impunity by MPs must be resisted!"
As the debate goes on, the matter continues to escalate. Even as the country was waiting to see how this stand-off would play out, another scandal hit Parliament. This time it was during the debate on a report by one of its committees over importation of contaminated sugar. The report was shot down amid claims that the legislators were bribed to have it defeated.
Some MPs accused their colleagues of having been bribed with as little as 100 USD to vote (Kenyan MPs are the highest paid in the public service and also rank among the highest paid in the world. A recent study by the UK-based Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed the MPs’ basic pay, which excludes allowances, was 76 times Kenya’s GDP per capita of USD 800).
As Kenyans fought to have the offending legislators removed, accusers claim that legislator Robert Pukose, who was said to have gone to the national assembly with a stash of new currency notes, was focused on bribing them.
Pukose protested, saying that the monies he was carrying was not for bribery purposes but was to off-set bills at the wedding ceremony of a fellow legislator who was tying the knot the following weekend.
Speaker Muturi has since ordered an investigation into the claims. In a phone interview, reporter Mwangi said he was confident of being vindicated.
"Isn’t it interesting that the same Pukose who wanted us punished is the one now facing the wrath of his colleagues over corruption,” Muturi said.
Meanwhile, after launching a makor purge against corrupt public officials, President Kenyatta turned his attention to those who grabbed public land and those who put up illegal structures worth millions of dollars. Heavy duty excavators have been rumbling in the city of Nairobi leaving buildings tumbling as President Kenyatta vows that, in his second and final term in office, he wants to leave a lasting legacy of adherence to the rule of law.
But the Head of State says that his stand has not gone down well with the affected, some of whom are his close friends. Speaking at the Faith Evangelistic Ministries church last Sunday, Kenyatta asked for prayers - saying the 'affected friends' have since cut off communication. He restated his stand that the demolitions would go on.
“I have lost close friends over the war on corruption. We must be ready to lose friends and do what is right in the eyes of God,” said President Kenyatta, adding that the country stands on the threshold of transformation.