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A dissenting voice silenced at the Nation

Last Monday, NTV news presenter and Daily Nation columnist Larry Madowo told his 1.39 million followers on Twitter that he was ending his Tuesday column titled, FrontRow.

Read that again. Madowo has 1.39 million followers. That’s more than the population of Meru County at the last census nine years ago!

He has been writing his commentaries on current affairs since 2014. Madowo’s abrupt decision to end it came after editors at the Daily Nation “killed” the piece he had written for Tuesday, 7 February.

“This week, the @dailynation refused to print my column for the first time in nearly 4 years. The irony aside, the same piece is now published on CNN,” Madowo told his followers.

Madowo did not say why the Daily Nation killed his piece. But reading the article on the CNN website leaves one in little doubt about what might have led to the Nation’s decision.

We will get to that in a sec. First, who is Madowo?

Larry Madowo is a rising star on the Kenyan media scene. He shot off as an intern at KTN, was hired for the business desk, and then worked briefly for the American based CNBC before landing at Nation Centre.

According to CNN, Madowo “has reported stories from nearly 40 countries and interviewed some of the world’s most prominent business, political and cultural icons.”

Wow! But that is CNN. Here at home, Madowo comes across more as a media celebrity. He is a news anchor and talk-show host, not a hard-nosed reporter or journalist. Therefore, none of his performance is remarkably journalistic, yet.

Come to think of it; the Kenyan television elite mostly pass themselves off as high-end socialites enjoying the good life, rather than the tough-skinned reporter whose soles are worn treading the pavement chasing a must-tell story.

Regardless, Madowo is adored mostly by the millennials, who might not have the time for his mainstream work but are all over him on social media.

In August, Madowo’s interview with the economist and NASA strategist David Ndii appeared to expose the TV newsman as lacking depth. Besides asking questions that inanely iterated the national unity of Kenya, Madowo didn’t have much else to help his viewers make sense of secession, which was the subject at hand.

And then in October, Madowo had a sharp exchange on his Sidebar talk show with lawyer and NASA activist Miguna Miguna over the lawyer’s call for a revolution. When Miguna said, “Revolutions are made from blood”, Madowo cut him off and insisted that the lawyer explain whether he was advocating for bloodshed. A stand-off ensued.

Miguna tried to explain that revolution does not necessarily mean violence. But Madowo was not satisfied. Eventually, he told Miguna he was not welcome in future shows.

Well, it’s not easy to moderate a show with Miguna as guest. But recalling the shouting match between him and show-host Madowo, opinion is divided on Madowo’s performance.

Madowo’s column #FrontRow was not exactly top of the shelf stuff. It mostly consisted of “tunaomba serikali” grumbling tone that is now common in Kenya.

However, his jibe at opposition leader Raila Odinga in January 2016 sparked fireworks. Dismissing Raila’s press conference on the alleged loss of billions of shillings in the Eurobond saga, Madowo tweeted: “Show of hands, who else was expecting an explosive list from Raila Odinga and all we got was nothing more than a fart?”

That must have excited Raila’s critics on the other side of the political divide. Madowo then went on to justify the tweet in his column.

“I was insulted in every way possible by thousands on social media and there were more than a few credible threats to my life which I will be reporting to the police,” he wrote. “Several people even promised physical violence should I show up at certain places. I was accused of having been paid by Jubilee to tarnish the name of ‘Baba’.”

But while Madowo threw darts at opposition figures, he seemed to wear kid gloves handling the ruling Jubilee party honchos on his shows, interviews or on social media posts.

Until last December.

Apparently, the bitterly contested 2017 presidential elections got Madowo’s goat. In a rare display of outrage, he lambasted President Uhuru Kenyatta for heaping praises on the security forces for their work while everywhere they were accused of massive brutality.

The same week, Madowo was summoned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations ostensibly to write a statement about the interview he had done with Dr. Ndii way back in August. He ignored the summons. His woes seem to have started here.

Now back to Madowo’s piece that the Nation editors killed. Last month, about two weeks before the government’s media shutdown, Business Today, an online publication, claimed that during a staff meeting Larry Madowo “touched a raw nerve, questioning Nation’s top management independence in the face of evident muzzling by State House and other gunslingers in the advertising world.”

Madowo was reportedly concerned that the management and top editors had not taken any action almost two weeks since Sunday Nation newspaper reporter Justus Wanga had been threatened by Deputy President William Ruto’s aide, David Mugonyi, according to Business Today.

The opinion piece that Madowo claims the Daily Nation editors refused to publish appears on the CNN website under the heading, “Why it’s a perilous time to be a journalist in Kenya”. It appears to confirm the reports by Business Today about Madowo.

In the piece, a clearly seething Madowo recounts the events surrounding the government’s media crackdown. He then reveals hitherto unknown details about how the affected media owners handled the crisis that grabbed global attention.

“In the hours after the shutdown, top executives held off going to contest the illegal move in court, preferring instead to “negotiate” with senior government officials about returning on air,” Madowo writes.

“All they received was radio silence before the Interior cabinet secretary’s tough stance the next day, widely seen as a middle finger to the broadcasters.”

Madowo opines that, “the Jubilee administration that proclaims itself as a “rule of law government” refused to reopen the country’s three biggest independent news channels despite a court order suspending the switch-off.”

“As a practicing Kenyan journalist, I’m deeply concerned about the threats to press freedom at this defining moment in the country’s democracy. Our job as reporters is to record history, whether the government of the day approves of it or not.”

The last time a journalist wrote in the Daily Nation in this tone, he was out of Nation Centre in a matter of days. That was Dennis Galava in January 2016.

Madowo seems to have discovered dissent. His piece in the Washington Post last week headlined, “Kenya is sliding into a dictatorship” is equally a bare-knuckled defence of media freedom and democracy.

Will someone please put up a sign at the Nation newsroom door: Come on in! Dissenters are not welcome!


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