Wrong to bar local media from swearing-in event

The ceremony to swear in the President of the Republic of Kenya is not a campaign or political party event. It is a state function and a solemn constitutional moment; that period in time when the sovereign agency of the people passes from one individual to the next. President William Ruto will not be just the leader of Kenya Kwanza and his hordes of loving and enthusiastic advisers. He will be the father of the Kenyan people—including the 6.9 million who voted for Mr Raila Odinga, the seven-odd million who did not show up to vote and another 30 million who did not qualify, expressed no interest in the polls or whose mind remains generally unknown.

Understandably, many people in Kenya Kwanza are unhappy with the media as a whole or sections of it because they feel that the practitioners were not sufficiently supportive of their campaign.

As a matter of fact, they might feel that they won it without the media and, therefore, the country does not need them going forward. The point to remember is that the media are not homogeneous; they are a market with a profusion of views and motivations. This is by design: Media in a democracy do not speak with the same voice. Unless one subscribes to the Ceaușescu school of thought, unanimous media support is unattainable. Failure to win media support for a cause is largely the result of an absence of skillful and professional management of public communications.

It is not a good idea to give dissent a bad name. It is a much better idea to de-risk dissent; however much people might find it distasteful. President-elect Ruto is, himself, the child of dissent.

He pursued his dream of power in defiance of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wish to be succeeded by Mr Odinga. And whereas the President-elect may have suffered many protocol and other indignities, his hands were not chopped off, he was not thrown into prison, his property was not taken away. Even though he went against the wishes of the entire edifice, there was still room for him to do his job—which he did quite well, judging by the results.

Only a political party intending to rule forever can afford to criminalise opposition to it; every political party is destined for the opposition because, one day, it will lose power.

The new government in formation has wasted a couple of opportunities to rise to statesmanship and conduct matters of state with a steady hand and a clear mind. First, there can only be one President at a time. The presumption of the Office of the President-Elect to “guide” Cabinet secretaries, governors and other officers of state on an advertising blockage of local media was devoid of necessary reverence for constitutional order. One must not exercise impending authority.

Press freedom

But it is the decision by the organ overseeing the transition of power to, pretty much, ban local media from the venue of the swearing-in that is the most surprising. This is not a good decision for various reasons. First, press freedom in Kenya is constitutionally protected; it is not given by the government.

Secondly, the optics of giving a foreign broadcaster the sole responsibility to cover a state function are cringeworthy; one wonders what the world would make of a situation where the Republican Party barred CNN, ABC, NBC and the rest and gave the job to Al Jazeera. Or, indeed, the British government decided that only Canal+ or Deutsche Welle is allowed to cover Her Majesty the Queen’s state funeral would be most surprising. Even Fox News was allowed to cover the inauguration of President Joe Biden, whose election victory they never recognised.

The rest of Kenya has accepted the results of the election and moved on. Kenya Kwanza, and especially its strategists, bloggers, media operators and so on, must similarly accept that the campaign is over and they are now in government. The election is finished. They are required to make public policy for the benefit of all Kenyans, including those they fought hard against.

Their actions are the actions of the Government of Kenya and they shape the perception of the citizens and the outside world about the country, its stability and whether it is a trustworthy partner in business and diplomacy. They should provide the President-elect and his new administration the possible chance to make a good start and attack the many challenges that the country faces.

The Assumption of Office Committee should not start a mud fight at the altar. They have no right to bar the media from tomorrow’s presidential swearing-in ceremony.