Why are officials in fear of media?

Journalists covering a past event

The role of the ‘Fourth Estate’ in disseminating information is one of the reasons people are informed.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Some fellows are panicking. That is the only conclusion one can draw from the coordinated weekend assault on sections of the media government felt was not toeing the line. Well, one must assume it was the government, for Moses Kuria is the Cabinet Secretary for Investments, Trade and Industry and, therefore, every public pronouncement he makes is deemed to carry the weight of his office.

Then there was Dennis Itumbi, a nominee for the Chief Administrative Secretary positions which were put on hold by the High Court. He nevertheless styles himself as the Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Government Communications, Telkom and Digital Economy. He also controls President William Ruto’s social media propaganda outfit.

Mr Kuria, at a public gathering, accused this media group of acting as an opposition party. His warning was followed up by a vile Twitter rant employing very unchristian language.

The CS’s diatribes followed hot on the heels of Itumbi’s response on social media to revelations on individuals connected to government minting billions from importation of tax-free edible oils under the guise of helping to lower consumer prices.

Now, it is not my remit to defend Nation Media Group. Indeed, there are many things wrong at Nation Centre—particularly editorial independence under siege from bureaucrats and bean counters—that I must call out from time to time. However, the fight for media freedom and overall freedom of expression knows no boundary. It is not about individual media outlets but the entire space which forms the cornerstone of our democracy.

Blatant corruption

Now, the government may well have legitimate grounds to take issue with reports on blatant corruption around trade deals, whether on duty-free palm oil, maize and rice imports or even direct procurement of petroleum from the Gulf.

There is in place a vast official government communications system—beyond social media and political platform histrionics—right from State House spreading out to every cabinet docket, and further down to individual public institutions.

As we speak, there has been no reasoned and sober official response to the contentious reports. Instead, individuals have been detailed, or taken their own initiatives, to launch venal scurrilous attacks on the offending media and even journalists.

Respond to basic questions

And they are unable to respond to the basic questions: Are permits for duty-free commodity imports being given selectively to firms connected to senior government officials? Are public procurement laws being deliberately breached to benefit those in authority? Are the importers making a killing at the expense of the public in unpaid taxes?

Are local manufacturers and producers being pushed out of business as they continue to pay heavy taxes while a few buccaneers bring in tax-free imports?

A very loud silence on this. Instead, all we hear are threats, crude insults and diversionary narratives. We are told that it was intervention by Mr Kuria and President Ruto that forced down the retail price of cooking oil but no information on where that commodity is available. And silence on whether tax-free import opportunities are offered openly to all applicants, instead of through some opaque process, would have achieved the same results.

Then there is that now-familiar bogey concocted by government propaganda system: Cartels. Yes, it is supposedly cartels fighting back. Mr Itumbi reeled off a list of major edible oil processors he claimed were feeling the heat from cheaper products and were, therefore, using the media.

Now, we can turn to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and his unrelenting crusade against cartels allegedly controlling the tea, coffee, dairy and other sectors. At some public meeting attended by Mr Gachagua the other week, there was the now-ritualistic bashing of both cartels and media. Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire went on to give a long list of companies she claimed dominated the coffee sector.

It is true there are dominant players in every industry. Apart from those sectors already mentioned, one could also add mobile telephony, petroleum distribution, supermarket chains, matatu routes, alcohol brewing and distillation, soft drinks, information technology...the list is endless.

But is that by itself evidence of cartels? Not by a long shot. Cartel-like behaviour, including collusion and price fixing, can be easily established and countered by the relevant government agencies.

That the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has been absent from the war against alleged cartels is very telling. That is because it is a phony war, one seemingly designed to bring down successful and long-established industrial concerns, so that the fly-by-night operators linked to those in power can thrive.

That is what it’s all about, and hence the panic evident in those angry outburst.

[email protected]. @MachariaGaitho