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Did Ipsos poll scare editors into censorship?

News editors had a hell of a time last Wednesday. Well, editors always have a hectic time. But that day had its uniqueness. As a sombre mood engulfed the nation while Kenyans marked the 40th anniversary of the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, someone decided to drop a bombshell.

Just a sec! Let’s first clarify a little matter here: nation engulfed in a somber mood marking 40th anniversary blah, blah was media hype. Nothing of the sort happened, as a matter of fact. President Uhuru Kenyatta and other top government officials laid the ritual wreath on Jomo’s grave. A memorial mass was held at Holy Family Basilica. That was all. Nobody marked the anniversary anywhere else: not in Loiyangalani, Keroka, Matayos or Sultan Hamud. People went on with their lives.

We proceed. The polling firm Ipsos dropped a bombshell. It released findings of a survey on the perception of corruption among Kenyans. Now, there is nothing earthshattering about that. Several organisations release regular or frequent corruption perception surveys. Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index is one of the most known. Surveys about the worst corrupt government departments are no longer news.

But Ipsos’s latest poll was different: It was about politicians perceived by Kenyans to be the most thieving. Actually, this isn’t even news. Doesn’t everyone know the republic’s worst thieves sitting pretty in their positions of power? Go ask even Class one tots.

Anyway, as polling guru Tom Wolf started crunching the numbers, media houses scrambled to be the first to post the details. Here was a juicy story. At last, someone had the balls to slam the stamp of science on what even the market madman knows. News sites came alive. Twitter was abuzz. TVs began to air Wolf’s presentation.

And then things changed. Very quickly. Media houses across town were hit by inexplicable panic. Editors worked the phones. Emails flew.

Online gatekeepers pulled down Twitter posts about the Ipsos poll.

Several newspapers frantically deleted their online reports about the poll. A click on a story on KTN News website led one to a blank page with the message: “An error occurred. Please try again later.”

A story on the Standard online was quickly taken down, as was one on the Star website.

And from there on, the story changed. Leading media houses now pegged their online reports on reactions by Deputy President William Ruto and Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru.

TV evening news did the same. The reports said Ruto had dismissed the poll, saying it was sponsored by his competitors to tarnish him. Waiguru swore to haul Ipsos’s ass to court for defamation.

That was the lead story in the papers on Thursday: reactions to the poll. In other circumstances, the papers (and all other media platforms) would have gleefully splashed details of the poll, with a line or two about the denials. But now the rebuttals were the big story.

Things were, however, heated on social media. On Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Whatsapp and whatnot, robust discussions about the Ipsos poll rent cyberspace.

It is not clear why mainstream media acted the way they did. But, anyway, they still told the story.

Kenya is crawling with greedy lawyers who comb through every newspaper with a toothpick, watch and listen to every news broadcast, sniffing out libel. They then send demand letters to media houses threatening legal action.

The public may not know it, but litigation has sent a deadly chill into newsrooms across town. Could this be the reason the Ipsos survey was nearly killed? But the story was too big to die.

Politicians and other powerful honchos having succeeded in gagging the media through marauding lawyers, they must have realised their strategy was counterproductive. They had only succeeded in driving nearly all critical discussions to social media. They tried suing or threatening prominent – and not so prominent – bloggers, but to no avail. Social media is so broad and ever evolving it defies regulation. It is impossible to silence it. It is a force of nature, sort of.

And so came the much discredited Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018, which imposed heavy penalties meant to silence dissent. But gallant freedom of expression warriors disembowelled the law, successfully petitioning the court to suspend numerous sections of it until the case is determined. Meanwhile, bloggers enjoy their freedom.

Besides sharing the details of the Ipsos poll with the world, bloggers embarked on a gripping debate – not yet in the mainstream media – about whether an opinion survey can be censored on the grounds it contains potentially defamatory material. Perception of corruption is a matter of opinion. Expressing and sharing an opinion – even a wrong one – is protected by the Constitution.

If anyone sues over the poll, it will be interesting to see how the courts adjudicate the matter.

For now, the big lesson learnt from last week’s news coverage of the Ipsos survey is, Kenyan corporate media – celebrated as free and vibrant –remains vulnerable to power.

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