Hopefully the remarkably stupid Kenyan government has learned its lesson, but it remains to be seen.
Today Kenyan courts ungagged the country’s three major TV networks. Tuesday the government pulled the plug on the networks for covering the mock swearing-in ceremony of the loser in the recent national election.
As you’d expect the first moments’ back-on-air was a press conference of the mock government and faux president who would never have drawn this amount of attention had the government not gagged the TVs in the first place.
The court will hear a regular complaint by the government in a couple weeks that had the broadcasts been allowed “thousands of Kenyans” would have been killed. Why the government continued the gag order after the event fizzled out, though, remains a mystery.
The protection of free speech Americans are accustomed to is considerably greater than in developing societies like Kenya where “news” is regularly weaponized and more often than in America imparts life-or-death matters.
So it’s completely honest to characterize news in the developing world as more potent than in the developed world. In the developed world most consumers don’t blindly accept news without some qualification.
(I realize some of you will challenge this and send me screenshots of Fox News. Fox News is not “most consumers.” Yet, anyway.)
So the Kenyan government under Kenyan law – which I think is exceptionally good as created in its recent constitution – can shut down media when it determines that what the media is disseminating will threaten the stability of the State.
In this case I think that was the government’s first mistake. Raila Odinga, the failed contestant in the presidential election, had already been sufficiently marginalized even among his own supporters. His own “vice president” didn’t even show up for the mock swearing-in ceremony!
So what the government’s mistake did was to effectively restrict its own mission to maintain stability by reversing Raila Odinga’s marginalization by claiming he was so important that we better not let anyone know what he’s doing.
How serious a mistake this is remains to be seen. This single overreach of government authority can’t by itself resurrect Raila. However, the government is certainly capable of resurrecting Raila if they continue acting so scared of him.
In two weeks the court will hear the original government challenge that the media coverage of the mock swearing-in was a grave threat to national stability. The ruling is mute except in terms of how it establishes precedent for possible future attempts by the government, including the current one that was just lifted today.
That hearing will likely now be bundled with additional citizen suits against the continued gagging. So this grand court case is nothing less than the defining of Kenyan free speech.
The Kenyan constitution is only seven years old. There isn’t a lot of judicial precedent yet so there will be a lot of attention paid to these deliberations.
Though the government might have a legitimate position that curtailing media is necessary for the stability of Kenya’s new society, prevailing in that position now will do nothing less than resurrect Raila Odinga.
It’s interesting to wonder if this conundrum reflects the flaws of free speech or poorly trained politicians.
Watch the Kenyan court!