MANY foreigners still imagine Kenya to be Africa's land of milk and honey, but President Daniel arap Moi's mark, at least in terms of the press, is closer to guardian of failing dictatorship than overseer of Africa's success story.
The ruling party, the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), legitimized by elections last December, has mouthed change about its dismal human rights record. But behind the scenes, President Moi's government continues its blatant disrespect for freedom of expression.
Police have impounded weekly magazines and newspapers from vendors, distributors, and printers. Reporters have been attacked, threatened, and jailed. Opposition newspapers cannot get businesses to advertise because they are frightened to be associated with criticism of the president's rule. And printers, intimidated by government repression, won't take on jobs for the weeklies.
In one of the more publicized cases this year, police completely dismantled one printing operation. In addition, the government, in cahoots with a judiciary clearly not independent of KANU, is handing out sedition charges without inhibition.
``The problem here is that we have, to a very large extent, developed a police state,'' said Blamuel Njururi, editor in chief of the Nairobi Weekly Observer, one of a number of weekly newspapers that has cropped up in Kenya in the last several years. ``Police informers are in every aspect of Kenyan life. You've got them in almost every newspaper,'' he said.
As in many African countries that struggle with the legacy of colonialism, part of the problem is lack of a culture of democracy. Legislative or electoral mechanisms don't necessarily translate into civil liberties. Without the guarantees of freedom of expression and association that allow for an effective opposition, as in Kenya, any talk of democracy is deceptive. The daily press, generally considered to be less bold in its analysis of government woes, has not been immune to government repression, but it is the weeklies that bear the brunt. And that has put many editors and publishers in court facing sedition charges.
``Sedition laws still exist which say the journalism profession shouldn't cause disaffection within the government,'' said Mitch Odero, deputy editor of The Standard, one of Kenya's main daily newspapers. ``The media, which interprets a multiparty system as checks and balances therefore, go all out with criticism. Then that amounts to causing disaffection against the government and has landed many editors in court.''
This has meant extra-legal methods of repression as well as detentions and government suits. Last year, at least 16 reporters were detained and more than 100,000 magazines were confiscated. The office of one magazine was firebombed, becoming the first incident of an arson attack against a publication in Kenya.
On Aug. 1, armed police raided the printing operation Colourprint, confiscated magazines, beat up a watchman, and threatened another employee that they would ``spray him with bullets'' if he didn't hand over artwork.
When Daily Nation reporter Ken Opala arrived to cover the story, police told him to ``disappear with that pen immediately or we [will] come for you. You have no business being here.''
Colourprint is not the only printing business police have harassed. In one of the more publicized cases this year, Dominic Martin's Fotoform Press, printer of Society, Finance, and The People, was raided at the end of April. Armed police forcibly entered the premises, confiscated equipment, and rewired machines, warning staff that any attempt to restart the presses would land them in coffins.
A RECENT ruling failed to return impounded equipment and delayed decision on the issue of legality of the raid until sedition charges against Mr. Martin and Finance's Editor Njehu Gatabaki are brought before the court. The judge ruled that returning the equipment might ``prejudice'' the sedition case. This delay is part of the government's strategy of financial warfare - silencing the press by running up expenses of publishers and editors who spend their time racing back and forth to court. According to a recent report by Maina Kiai, a Harvard educated lawyer and executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, this has cost independent magazines close to $150,000 in lost issues, not to mention the losses incurred in suspending publication.
In the case against Society, the government filed sedition charges last year in Mombasa - 310 miles from Nairobi. Society's editors, Pius and Loyce Nyamora, and their staff were detained for five days in filthy prison cells. After their release, they had to travel to Mombasa every two weeks for more than a year to appear in court. Finally, this spring the sedition charges were dropped. But the ordeal cost them dearly.
As far as prospects for the future, the Nyamoras and others are worried that without alternative sources of news, democracy is doomed. ``That is what is going to kill freedom of the press in Kenya because most of us will not see the use to fighting for democracy when we are suffering,'' said Mr. Nyamora. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.