The Media Owners Association of Kenya has condemned Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Commerce Moses Kuria for comments he made following an expose by the Nation Media Group implicating him in a cooking oil scandal.
Speaking at the Akorino Annual Convention in Embu on Sunday, Mr Kuria threatened to sack any government official who advertises with the group and then went on to insult journalists from the media house in unprintable words.
He said: "Nation Media, you must now decide whether you are a newspaper, a broadcaster, a media house or a political party. I have said from tomorrow, even from today, any government department that is found advertising in the Nation Media Group, consider yourself out (of government)".
In a statement, Media Owners Association's chairperson, Agnes Kalekye, said the threat to withdraw government advertising from the media house was tantamount to blackmail and aimed at undermining the media house's coverage of government affairs.
"It is unfortunate that Mr Kuria has chosen to directly and publicly attack the Nation Media Group for fulfilling its role of holding government to account.... That Kuria has chosen to threaten the media with the withdrawal of state advertising... is clear and unequivocal blackmail, contrary to the legal provisions on state advertising and the Constitution, and is intended to force the Nation to change its coverage of important governance issues," Kalekye said.
She added: "It is incumbent on Mr Kuria to understand that advertising by government and other state agencies is a legal obligation and not a favour granted at the behest of himself and other public officials. Kuria's use of inflammatory language is not expected of a public official. This disrespectful and clearly inflammatory language disqualifies him from holding public office."
The Nation Media Group has also condemned CS Kuria, saying that his remarks not only “declared a commercial war on the media house,” but also insulted Nation staff and the Group’s principal shareholder, His Highness the Aga Khan.
The Media house noted previous attacks by the CS, including discouraging the public from buying newspapers at the height of Covid-19, with the claim that it would prevent infections. The CS is also on record for berating a Nation journalist on live television when he served as Gatundu South Member of Parliament.
“The verbal attack using foul and crude language against NMG is shocking, primitive and inexcusable in the eyes of levelheaded Kenyans who expect Cabinet Secretaries to conduct themselves with decorum befitting their high offices. It constitutes a serious violation of Chapter Four bill of rights, particularly the freedom of the press. We note that the attacks on media have been sustained since the Kenya Kwanza government took office,” said Clifford Machoka, the Group’s Head of External Affairs.
“We would like to believe that Moses Kuria’s statement seeking to intimidate government agencies from placing advertisement with NMG does not represent government policy. We also wish to remind CS Kuria that he has no legal powers to make such a sweeping declaration. Such statements amount to pressure on civil servants that erodes the integrity of public debate, placing at risk, unfairly and directly, the media freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. No government should weaponise taxpayer’s funds at its disposal to punish media for exposing public ills in a bid to influence editorial integrity,” added Machoka.
While urging CS Kuria to file his complaints with Nation’s Public Editor or the Media Complaints Commission, Machoka reaffirmed Nation’s commitment to “relentlessly uphold media freedoms” and guard its role as a public watchdog.
“We demand an immediate apology and a retraction from CS Kuria. We call upon the courts, the general public, media organisations and the international community to reject, condemn and take stern, appropriate action against these attempts to abrogate the rights of Kenyans. President William Ruto should equally publicly state his commitment to media freedom and disassociate himself from the statements by Kuria and his ilk, which serve to tarnish his government’s image,” he said.
The CS was also called out by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), which described his comments as a threat to press freedom and a poor reflection on Kenya's global image.
"The Council notes that this is the most extreme instance since independence where individuals have pushed media and government relations to the brink and lowered the dignity of the country. The conduct of the Cabinet Secretary falls below the threshold set out in Chapter Six of the Constitution of Kenya for public officers as well as Article 34 on media freedom as it amounts to profiling and targeting of specific journalists working for a media house," said MCK Chief Executive Officer David Omwoyo in a press statement.
"Disagreements and misunderstandings are the hallmark of a democracy. While we appreciate the government's concerns about perceived negative media coverage, it is important that the media receive a coherent and consistent narrative from the state to enable balanced coverage of government initiatives," he added.
Mr Omwoyo further said that as a democracy, we must value the watchdog role of the media in holding government and those in power to account.
“This will mostly be perceived as an attack and may make some people uncomfortable. Public officials have a duty to provide timely and accurate information to ensure an informed public,” he said.
Omwoyo also stated that MCK is currently engaging stakeholders from both the government and the media to protect media freedom, accurate reporting and "proper handling of complaints".
In defence of journalists, the Kenya Editors Guild (KEG) called for an unconditional apology from Mr Kuria and for the ruling government to guarantee media freedom.
"Going out into the public space to lambast and reduce the important work of the media to a whorish business is the highest form of insult to media professionals in the country. Indeed, Kuria's remarks took us back nearly 30 years when the late Mulu Mutisya, a zealot of the one-party dictatorship, described journalists in similar terms. Kuria must have missed the revolution. Our country has come of age to appreciate the rule of law and the separation of roles in a democracy. The language of threats to both the media and government officials has been buried in 2010," said KEG president Zubeidah Kananu.
"The Kenya Editors' Guild expects an unconditional apology from CS Kuria following these unfortunate remarks. Editors, journalists and all media practitioners expect an assurance from the Kenya Kwanza administration that the sentiments expressed by CS Kuria do not represent the policy of the government and that media houses will be given their space to carry out their mandate," she added.
She also urged CS Kuria and other aggrieved parties to seek legal redress for their grievances, including through the Media Complaints Commission.
For its part, the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) urged the CS to speak in a manner that promotes a positive image of the country and to behave as a leader with integrity.
"We would wish to remind Mr Kuria that he is now a Cabinet Secretary whose actions and utterances should promote positive image of Kenya as a nation. In line with tenets of leadership and integrity law," said KUJ Secretary General Erick Oduor.
In a statement, the Political Journalists Association of Kenya (PJAK) said Kuria's outburst only reflected the increasing assault on media freedom, which has been marked by threats, intimidation, profiling of journalists and physical attacks.
"If Mr Kuria had a problem with a publication, then his complaints must constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya. We believe that he has a condescending attitude towards the work of journalists and the media in general. Threatening journalists, media houses and other government officials is not only archaic but also unorthodox and embarrassing to the government. We also hope that his comments are not a reflection of the Kenya Kwanza government but his own," said Jerry Rawlings, the association's secretary general.
The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission also responded, saying: "In line with its advisory mandate, the EACC wishes to inform Kenyans that public procurement in Kenya is governed by the law and therefore no public institution or public officer should be victimised in any way for engaging in lawful transactions with other organisations, including the award of tenders within the law."
Additional reporting by Kevin Cheruiyot