Je ne suis pas #CharlieHebdo

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We say the words: “Je ne suis pas #CharlieHebdo” (“I am not #CharlieHebdo“) with due respect to all those affected by the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday in the French capital, Paris. As Kenyans, we are all too familiar with the pain, loss and damage caused by acts of terror. So, we empathise with the French people and we say to them: “Poleni sana”. However, as #CharlieHebdo continues to flood timelines, media outlets and newspapers, we must decolonise our minds and remember not to get sucked into the Western Media frenzy. As Kenyans and Africans at large, we have very complex and pressing problems of our own that are not so fortunate as to receive the worldwide coverage currently being given to #CharlieHebdo.

For us at DR, the #CharlieHebdo buzz brought to mind not only the Westgate Mall attack (and other terrorist attacks countrywide like Mpeketoni, Mandera, Kapedo to name but a few) but more importantly our country’s legislative response culminating in the enactment and assent of the Security Laws (Amendment) Act, No. 19 of 2014 on December 19, 2014. This Act systematically erodes our freedoms of association, assembly, expression, personal liberty, among many other rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Security Bill 2014 by Victor Ndula

As I have discussed here, judicial intervention through the granting of conservatory orders to suspend the implementation of the Security Act became imperative since the provisions disclosed a “danger to life and limb” as well as “imminent danger to the Bill of Rights”. However as most Kenyans will tell you: the most shocking thing about the Security Act is not the Kenyatta administration’s thinly veiled attempt at usurping sovereign power but how spectacularly it fails to tackle the root causes of terrorism. If this draconian law is left to stand, we fear that whole or sections of communities, religious and other groupings will continue to feel targeted, vulnerable and discriminated against under the thumb of an emerging police state thus laying the foundations for more terrorist attacks.

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Moving away from the terrorism theme, we do not need western media’s coverage ad nauseum of #CharlieHebdo to be reminded of yet another important global issue, namely freedom of expression. In a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Kenya, the learned court traces Kenya’s long journey towards media independence and freedom of expression. The court begins from the colonial era with the story of Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi, the founder of Times Printing Works and the Colonial Times newspaper who became the first Kenyan to be convicted for seditious publication. Vidyarthi also published two newspapers in African languages that followed the “radical standpoint” of the Colonial Times. These were Habari za Dunia/News of the World edited by F. M. Ruhinda and a weekly paper in the Dholuo language, Ramogi, which was edited by Ramogi Achieng Oneko. A passage quoted by the Supreme Court reads:

“Under the motto “Frank, Free and Fearless,” Vidyarthi and his team of young writers spearheaded the politics of journalism in Kenya and provided a pivotal channel of expression for emerging freedom fighters like Tom Mboya and the future first President Jomo Kenyatta. Vidyarthi’s radical and unwavering fight saw him convicted and sentenced to prison on three separate occasions. Indeed, it signified a campaign for press freedom and unrestricted national expression that was to last not only throughout the independence struggle but also well into the contemporary period.”

It is beyond dispute that almost all jurisdictions whose governance is based on democratic principles have keenly developed the concept of freedom of the media. In this regard it cannot be challenged that the freedom of media is borne from the most valued and universally accepted freedom of speech or expression. However in Kenya today, the recent cases of Robert Alai and Alan Wadi Okengo have demonstrated that the government is still capable of using the existing legal framework to curtail our enjoyment of this fundamental freedom of expression.

Therefore, in the wake of #CharlieHebdo, we believe that the French should learn from Kenya and not rush to legislate on terrorism in the drastic manner we have. Like Kenyatta, France’s Hollande is also up for re-election in 2017 and may use this terrorist attack to boost his approval ratings by taking a tough militaristic stand on fighting terror and silencing critics at the expense of important rights enjoyed by minorities living in France.

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