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#NMGExodus: State capture of the Nation?

The shocking resignation of eight Nation Media Group columnists last week has placed the house the Aga Khan built on the spotlight, and particularly the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Tom Mshindi.

 The columnists issued a stinging joint statement announcing they were immediately quitting writing for NMG, the largest media house in Kenya and the region.

The columnists are George Kegoro (Executive director, Kenya Human Rights Commission), Muthoni Wanyeki (Africa Director, Open Society Foundation), Gabriel Dolan (Catholic missionary priest), Rasna Warah (author), Maina Kiai (Co-director, InformAction), Gabrielle Lynch, Nic Cheeseman and Kwamchetsi Makokha.

Their statement, titled “We refuse to be silenced”, is not just a powerful indictment of the NMG, but also offers a sobering glimpse into the state of media freedom in Kenya.

“A worrying pattern has emerged where it appears the Executive is able to influence who works for or contributes to the NMG,” the columnists charged.

“The Executive and NMG’s actions suggest state capture of the media,” they went on.

“We refuse to continue to clothe the loss of editorial independence and media freedom at the NMG with respectability,” the writers stated.

NMG denies these charges, pointing out that the media house was established over half a century ago on the bedrock of independent voices, diversity and freedom of expression.

“We wish to reiterate that overall we have honored our obligation to respect their views and did not tamper with their positions except to correct basic errors,” an NMG statement said in part.

But it turns out the loss of editorial independence is not something new at NMG.

Two years ago on 31 March 2016, a number of Nation columnists wrote to the Aga Khan, the founder of the NMG, expressing “a growing concern about what appears to be a process of circumscribing independent voices within the NMG, contrary to the stated editorial policy, and damaging its brand as a credible mirror of society.”

At the time, the columnists raised the issue of the dismissal of Dennis Galava as Managing Editor for Special Projects and Investigations over an editorial he wrote that was critical of the presidency. Galava had been threatened after his editorial appeared.

Within weeks of his departure, NMG refused to renew the contract of celebrated cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, “because of the discomfort his cartoons were causing the Executive”, the columnists said.

There were other high profile dismissals, including that of Sunday Nation News Editor Mugumo Munene, Investigations Editor Andrew Teyie and court reporter Paul Ogemba.

“After working for the NMG for 15 years, Munene was called in by the Editor-in-Chief and asked to sign a written consent to leave his employment on grounds of redundancy,” the columnists wrote.

They called into question the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Tom Mshindi, saying he had “lost the confidence of his editorial staff and engendered public suspicion about his political independence.”

“His continued stay in his current position needs to be considered against the imperative of restoring broken trust”, the columnists suggested.

They urged the Aga Khan to take visible steps “to remedy the growing public cynicism about and decline of the NMG’s brand.”

Apparently, no visible steps were taken and NMG continued hurtling downhill.

Reacting to last week’s resignation, British journalist Richard Dowden, a former NMG director, tweeted: “I got pushed off the Daily Nation board because I was too outspoken. Its backbone has turned to jelly.”

A former Nation columnist, Dr Godwin Murunga, currently Executive Secretary of the Dakar-based Council for Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) wrote that, while the Executive has sought to claw back on media freedom, there are enablers of this within the media itself.

“In NMG, for instance, some serious compromises have deliberately been made at the editorial level in conformity with Executive dictates. These are compromises by those who ought to protect media freedom. Tom Mshindi’s predecessors came under serious Executive pressures and survived them by protecting media freedom. Ask Gado. One can say the same of previous editors like Denis Galava and, indeed, Tim Wanyonyi at the Saturday Nation. But with changes in these positions, lower level editorial teams have come under enormous pressure to compromise.”

NMG’s independence has come under particularly sharp scrutiny in recent months.

Ahead of the 30 January mock swearing in of Raila Odinga as the People’s President, a group of media honchos are understood to have cut a deal with the Executive to give the event a blackout. But somehow the deal fell through. The state reacted by switching off three TV stations.

As the shutdown unfolded, drawing a deluge of condemnation, state security agents laid siege on Nation Centre apparently intent on arresting NTV General Manager Linus Kaikai and news presenters Ken Mijungu and Larry Madowo. The journalists spent hours holed up in the building until they obtained an anticipatory bail to secure their freedom.

In the following days, Larry Madowo announced he would not be writing his weekly Nation column, #FrontRow. He did not say why. Madowo left NTV last week.

Kaikai, who as the chair of Kenya Editors Guild had issued a scathing statement against the TVs shutdown, quit NMG.

Dr. David Ndii, whose column appeared on Saturdays, stopped contributing. In their statement last week, the eight columnists alleged that the Executive had demanded that Ndii’s column be killed as a condition for switching on the shut TV stations late January.

Perhaps a clearer pointer to NMG’s capture by the Executive is an incident that took place on 7 January 2018. Deputy President William Ruto’s spokesman David Mugonyi called up Nation journalist Justus Wanga and threatened to sack him.

The Nation had published an article by Wanga alleging a split between Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta over a new cabinet line-up announced on 5 January.

“I want to be outright with you,” Mugonyi reportedly told Wanga. “Ukitaka kufutwa kazi, continue with that path, utafutwa, utafutwa, sikudanganyi, utafutwa! [If you want to be fired, continue on that path, you will be fired, you will be fired, I assure you you will be fired!]”

The departure of the columnists is a big blow for at least two reasons. One, their mostly critical columns were widely read and gave the Nation much of its credibility as a publication dedicated to speaking truth to power.

And two, the statement the columnists issued exposes the NMG very badly. The media house’s denials won’t count for much.

Where the house that the Aga Khan built goes from here remains to be seen.

 

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