In this last

offering of the ‘My Story’ trilogy, indefatigable wordsmith Philip Ochieng argues in a fledgling democracies such as ours, guarding press freedom is the best bet in preserving social rights

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…Notwithstanding the completely false historiography by its present intelligentsia, the West has shown that it usually takes a revolution to bring about  a new political thought-system into line with the econo-intellectual base that has given rise to that new thought. All the important liberal regimes in the West took power through revolutions, some of them extraordinarily violent and destructive.

A political party which allows itself to be criticised through its own medium clearly shows that it is conscious of its strength and maturity. Unluckily for Kenya’s ruling party, this strength was vitiated beyond redemption by the party’s own contumacious refusal to oil its other joints.

Thus a publication, like Ng’weno’s Weekly Review, which asserted that it was “impractical”, even theoretically, for the party to do so, and even suggested that freedom should be removed from the party newspaper, pulled the rug from under its own feet. To do so is to advocate a total clamp even on itself and other publications.

But I am no Leonard Sussman, Clayton Kirkpatrick and Raymond Bonner and other stalwarts of Western liberalism, for whom freedom can be “total”. For whenever freedom becomes total it is called licence – a free-for-all which must ineluctably culminate in Thomas Hobbes’ guerrum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all).

As the people of Kenya’s Molo, Pokot, Marakwet and Turkana know well, such licence is a recipe for brutish, nasty and short life of which Thomas Hobbes once wrote. If relative freedom of the press is a right, and not a privilege, then it is a right to be guarded most jealously. All those enjoying rights must reciprocate it through a keen sense of responsibility.

It is the most effective way I know of guarding one’s social right. In Third World countries, where the cultural foundation is so shallow and the political edifice is, therefore, so shaky, freedom of speech, if it is used with abandon, can lead to chaos in a flash. As Mao Zedong used to say, any small spark can cause a prairie fire.

Thus if, in a volatile society, we use our freedom of speech injudiciously we can lose it just as easily as did Beyond and the Financial Review in 1988. When I suggested this fact in a 1990 commentary, certain foreign correspondents based in Nairobi were extremely surprised. How could a man of my experience, who had always expressed his views so strongly, now imply that freedom of the press should be hemmed in in any way whatever?
When in a personal conversation, Raymond Bonner, at that time the Nairobi bureau chief of the New Yorker, told me during a visit to my office one day in 1990 that he could never personally take part in any form of censorship, I wondered whether he had any children.

It reminded me of an infamous claim by both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – “I can never tell a lie” – a statement subjected to caustic satire by Mark Twain in one of the American humorist’s laugh-a-minute pieces. Yet when I recently reasserted it in an article in the People on Sunday, in which I summarised the history of the Weekly Review, when it collapsed in the middle of l999, I was vehemently criticised for trying to “rewrite history”.

In an argumentum ad hominem characterised by uneducated bad temper, Prof Michael Chege of the University of Florida, USA, wrote (in an open letter published by the People) that, having been a “sycophant of Moi”, I had no right to criticise the fact that the Weekly Review had progressively sold out to the same Moi.

Since I had vigorously opposed the multi-party system, said Chege, I had no right to preach “freedom” now. The same Chege who accused me of rewriting history had rewritten history without any qualm by somersaulting from “Marxism-Leninism” to multi-party liberalism, a platform sponsored by the US, that same superpower which these new “liberators” had long condemned as the father of “imperialism”.

As I have tried to show, it is thoroughly crooked intellectually to equate multi-partyism with freedom and one-partyism with tyranny, especially by a man who only recently, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, had vehemently “opposed” “imperialism” in favour of rigidly single-party Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I said about the Weekly Review. The demise of that news publication was a veritable tragedy for the media fraternity and sorority in East Africa.

It is, of course, true that, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Nairobi news publication had become a far cry from what it had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But that is the whole calamity. Of all the periodicals that have been attempted by indigenes in this region ever since independence, the Weekly Review had lived the longest. But there was no secret to it. It was simply because, for over a decade, the magazine appeared dedicated to social health and journalistic excellence.

This was also the secret behind the success of Viva, the only good monthly magazine dedicated to women that Kenya has ever had. But, founded in Nairobi five years earlier, Viva remained socially committed and professionally admirable only so long as its founder-editor remained Salim Lone, who, in moral and intellectual terms, is among the most solid journalists Kenya has produced.

After Lone was forced into exile in New York in l982, where he later became a close aide to Kofi Annan at the UN in Manhattan, Viva began a downward trend from which it never recovered. It was finally consigned to its deathbed in the late 1980s in the hands first of Rashid Mughal, a former features editor of the Nation, and then of Miriam Kahiga.

In fact, the two qualities – social commitment and professional excellence – are inseparable. In whatever your walk of life, no matter how committed, you cannot serve any social purpose through lackadaisical work, and vice versa.

In its earlier period, the Weekly Review gained more and more readers just because it seemed to drum up a deep sense of proportion and fairness and looked thorough in its research. One of its first issues, sometime in the middle of l975, was especially memorable, for it coincided with the assassination of populist politician Josiah Mwangi (“JM”) Kariuki.
Though claiming to be independent of the government, the dailies, for good measure, kept beating about the bush concerning the circumstances of the murder. It was the Weekly Review which, in a series of thrilling and information-packed articles, adduced compelling circumstantial evidence to show that “JM” had been slain by the central power group.

These facts were to be confirmed by a select parliamentary group led by Elijah Mwangale.
No, I was not a member of the distinguished group of media people who founded the Weekly Review. They included Hilary Ng’weno, owner and editor-in-chief, Terry Hirst (the nationally celebrated artist and cartoonist), Awori wa Kataka (now a University of Nairobi official), Horace Awori (who has just headed a Task Force on Press Law) and Sarah Elderkin (who was, in later years, to become its managing editor and later an aide to opposition politician Raila Odinga).

But it was during the same year, 1975, that I returned to Nairobi after five years of international peregrination, mostly in Tanzania and Germany. When the Nairobi dailies just would not touch me because, as Githii reportedly put it, of my “Tanzanian communism”, it was Ng’weno who beckoned me to join the Weekly Review as the assistant editor.

For reasons which need not concern us here, however, mine was a fleeting tenure. But it was thoroughly enjoyable. And it filled me with profound pride that here was an enterprise launched and run by Kenyans, showing the foreign-owned publications that indigenes could also do it.

It was for its excellence that the weekly had such a global reach. It was always required reading because it was so authoritative and accurate. For that reason, it was subscribed to by many individuals and all important institutions in both camps of the bipolar world. Its reputation followed me as far away as San Francisco, where I was exiled in l982.

Yet, by that time, the Weekly Review was already showing subtle signs of fatigue, one-sidedness and pecuniary embarrassment. What was the matter? To answer that question, it is necessary to observe that all these things were probably causally connected. And they probably had their roots in the change of guard at State House, Nairobi, in l978.
In the early years of the Moi regime, they would not have been too noticeable because those years were marked by political populism and what looked like social order and justice and economic prosperity. Thus the new regime’s own high-handedness (which was what was to force Salim Lone, myself and others into exile) looked quite benign.

It is not, therefore, by happenstance that the Weekly Review began to identify itself openly and fully with the Moi system only as the system itself dropped all pretence at democracy in practice. How did it come about that a magazine which had waxed so critical of social evil should now identify itself with what was seen as the same manifestation of social evil?
It is not a simple question. Up to now, I myself am still trying to live down my reputation in the early 1990s as having been bought to do propaganda work for Kanu and Moi. That is the goal Prof Chege was trying to achieve by going for my jugular rather than sticking to issues of the moment.

I had been a very “fiery critic” (as Nairobi publisher John Nottingham had described me in his blurb to the book The Kenyatta Succession by Joseph Karimi and myself). But now I had lost my name by associating with a recalcitrant party just before the height of the multi-party demands.

But the assertion that Moi had bribed Ng’weno need not arise. It is more probable that our understanding was critical of social crime only so long as it was perpetrated by a  “Kikuyu government” (Kenyatta’s). For my part, I can offer only circumstantial evidence.
It is, nevertheless, true that, as soon as Moi took over from Kenyatta, the Weekly Review stopped all independent investigative activities into government processes and restricted itself to rehashing what the dailies had been reporting throughout the week.

Concomitant with this slump in socio-intellectual content was a general decline in packaging, in writing, editing and design as arts, namely, as a means of attracting the audience to a newspaper’s inner goodies. Both deficiencies combined to make the publication so tedious that readership rapidly dwindled to “a laughable figure”, as Ng’weno himself had said of Dar es Salaam’s Nationalist.

In his farewell editorial, Jaindi Kisero, who had taken over from Elderkin as managing editor, said the death was to be blamed totally on advertisers. Kisero, who is now a senior editor at the Nation group, argued that the demise could not be blamed on the paper’s obsequiousness to Kanu, since publications which had been vehement supporters of opposition parties had also called it a day due to lack of advertising support.

Kisero was, of course, right. A publication cannot breathe without financial investment by advertisers. Yet, although advertisers are niggardly with their money, we must also look at it from their point of view. Advertising is a costly thing. Therefore, no advertiser wants to put his money in a publication bought by only less than 5,000 people.

Thus the argument has to go the other way round. It was because people were no longer reading the Weekly Review – as a result of its increasingly narrowly subjective partisanship and professional shoddiness – that it lost its advertising support. That is the bitter lesson that any local investor venturing into publishing must learn.

Newspaper publishing never pays off immediately. As Ng’weno keeps carping – correctly, I think – the richest advertisers are foreigners and they prefer to advertise in the more successful publications, almost all of which are foreign-owned.

Let us, however, give Ng’weno his due. It had to take great courage to establish a thing like the Weekly Review  when he did, at a time when the government expected and got nothing but support from the already existing print and electronic media; at a time, too, when advertisers were extremely suspicious of and extremely niggardly towards any indigenous enterprise.

That Ng’weno persevered for 25 years is wonderful and to be commended. As I say in my book I Accuse the Press, he is an indomitable spirit, the nonpareil in the industry. Yet it was here, probably, that lay his Achilles heel. Though he attempted many ventures, he never seemed to like delegating crucial work at a certain level.

He thus spread himself so thinly on the ground that he moored all his ventures to that ground. Even when, in the middle of the nineties, he removed himself from the day-to-day production of the Weekly Review in order to concentrate on setting up Stellavision and Africaonline, he still insisted on approving, by remote control, everything that went into the publication.

The fact that the paper became more and more tepid and humdrum, certain employees told me, was deliberate policy.  It was a pity, too, that, for a long time after the collapse, Ng’weno simply refused to sell the Weekly Review title to any of the many local bidders.
His fear – I had this from the horse’s own mouth – was that, since his name had been associated with the title throughout, if a local buyer should turn it into a muckraker of Nairobi’s Post on Sunday kind, it would ruin his name, though, in the middle of 2005, Ng’weno finally sold the title to the Nation Media Group.

Why had he changed his mind? I don’t know. But it is an interesting question because, for nearly two decades, Ng’weno and the NMG had been bitter enemies. Though I have tried to get to the bottom of the story, neither side has been willing to offer an explanation for the mutual phobia.

Unofficial insiders tell me, however, that it stemmed from something which Albert Ekirapa, NMG’s CEO till the mid-1990s, had done to Ng’weno at an earlier time. But it is good that the two parties have now reconciled. The NMG recently paid Ng’weno good money to produce for its print and electronic media a series of captivating sketches on Kenya’s political history since independence.

But this detente cannot explain why Ng’weno has sold the Weekly Review title to the NMG because the sale took place long before it. It is speculated that Ng’weno agreed to the transaction because the NMG, being an established upmarket newspaper group, is unlikely to ruin Ng’weno’s name through muckraking. But the question many people have asked is why the NMG has not resuscitated the Weekly Review. The unofficial answer I have received is that the NMG was interested only in selling copyrights to its erstwhile articles, not in re-launching it.  If true, what a pity!

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