Two British professors and an Irish priest are among eight independent columnists who have resigned from their Nation Media Group (NMG) Saturday Nation roles, claiming that collusion between management and the government has eroded editorial independence.
Irish Catholic missionary priest Father Gabriel Dolan has written for the newspaper since 2008, while Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham, Nic Cheeseman, and Professor of Comparative Politics at University of Warwick, Gabrielle Lynch, have been columnists since April 2014.
In a statement released yesterday, the columnists said:
“For many years, we have been privileged to contribute regularly to various publications of the Nation Media Group (NMG) as columnists. But sadly, and with regret, we now announce the immediate withdrawal of our columns from these publications.
“We are deeply grateful to readers here in Kenya, throughout the region and around the world, who have granted us audience and engaged with our contributions to public debate on politics, policy, justice and human rights.
“We are aware that the singular privilege to contribute comes with the tacit compact to promote and protect intellectual freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of information, which anchor freedom of the media.
“The Board’s response, when it came two months later, promised unspecified action, which never materialised.
“Last month, the NMG released from its service Linus Kaikai who, as Chair of the Kenya Editors Guild, had spoken out against collusion between the Executive and some media managers to censor reporting on the mock swearing-in of opposition leader Raila Odinga. Subsequently, the editors of the Sunday Nation informed one of the most-read and discussed columnists that his contract would not be renewed, and only after he formally enquired about his status.
“Long before the communication, it was reported that discontinuing economist David Ndii’s column was one of the Executive’s conditions for the reinstatement of the NMG’s broadcast frequencies, which had been unlawfully switched off air.
“A worrying pattern has emerged where it appears the Executive is able to influence who works for or contributes to the NMG. The Executive has had numerous opportunities and resources to tell its side of whatever story is being publicly discussed – and it has done so both through its spokespeople and through pro-government columnists, including in the Nation’s publications.
“The Executive and NMG’s actions suggest state capture of the media. Censoring individual columnists signals official intolerance for dissenting views, and suggests Executive willingness to go to any length – even co-opting editors – to achieve its aims. It is unacceptable that they should also be deciding who can have a voice in publicly accessed spaces. A media organisation that tacitly supports such a position alienates itself from the public.
“Two years ago, we opined that the judgment and leadership of some of the NMG’s editorial board and its senior management was questionable and endangered public suspicion about its political independence. These latest actions have, in our collective view, destroyed the public trust the NMG’s publications enjoyed, making our continued association with NMG untenable.
“We refuse to continue to clothe the loss of editorial independence and media freedom at the NMG with respectability.
“Thankfully, public opinion is no longer in the sole grip of those who buy ink by the barrel. We are encouraged by the emergence of more egalitarian models for accessing and sharing information, and will not be powerless witnesses to the silencing of even one voice, however disagreeable those in power might find it.
“It is with regret that we hereby collectively resign as independent columnists from the NMG. We assure our readership that we continue to be heard and to engage with readers through making use of such models for free thought and free exchange of ideas.”
“Freedom of the media is a public good, and private individuals and corporations profit from it on the understanding that their gain secures their independence. Media freedom acquires significance for democracy where public institutions are weak and under threat, and the Executive has littled check, as has been observed in Kenya recently.
“Two years ago, a number of us wrote to the NMG’s board of directors in an act of good faith to express our concern about what we saw as a systematic process to constrain independent voices within the company, contrary to its stated editorial policy to promote diversity and freedom of the media. We feared the legitimacy of the NMG as a credible source of truth was being undermined by its management’s failure or refusal to safeguard the operational independence of professionals in its employ.
“Notably, we cited the dismissal of Dennis Galava as managing editor for special projects and investigations over the publication of an editorial critical of the presidency – especially since he had been threatened by such action from outside Nation Media Group. Within weeks of that decision, the NMG’s management also allowed the contract of Africa’s foremost cartoonist, Godfrey Mwampembwa, ‘Gado’, to lapse because of the discomfort his contributions were causing the Executive. Other, subsequent departures of senior editorial staff did little to assuage the moral dilemma we felt at our continued association with NMG, whose respect for human rights and freedom of expression was then in question. We asked the company to change course.
“Our view then, as it remains now, was that these actions damaged the NMG’s claim to be a champion of editorial independence and media freedom.”
Along with Professor Cheeseman, Professor Lynch and Father Dolan, the statement was signed by George Kegoro (Executive Director, Kenya Human Rights Commission), Muthoni Wanyeki (Africa Director, Open Society Foundations), Rasna Warah (author), Maina Kiai (Co-Director, InformAction) and Kwamchetsi Makokha (Programme Advisor, Journalists for Justice).
Daily Telegraph writer and former East African correspondent for The Economist, Adrian Blomfield, reacted to the failure of the NMG to report the resignations by Tweeting it was a “back day for journalism”.
“One cannot really see the point of buying the Nation any more,” he added.
However, the Nation Media Group did issue a statement on the withdrawal of the columnists which said:
“Nation Media Group notes with regret the position taken by columnists who have been writing for NMG platforms and have decided to stop writing for our publications. We respect their right to take a collective decision, although each of them had an individual contact that we have diligently honoured over the years we have worked with them. We wish to reiterate that overall we have honoured our obligation to respect their views and did not tamper with their positions except to correct basic errors.
“NMG was founded more than half a century ago on the bedrock of independent voices, diversity and freedom of expression. It is in this regard that we developed, through a process of public participation and published our editorial policy to guide our conduct and journalism. We believe that the principles of independence, fairness and balance, as espoused in our editorial policy, are key to promoting the democratic space whilst being mindful of the impact that information in the public space plays in shaping opinions.
“We wish to reassure our readers and stakeholders that we continue to be committed to media freedom whilst delivering value in line with their expectations.”
In his resignation and farewell letter to Nation colleagues, Professor Cheeseman revealed his personal reasons for resigning and explained why he felt he was left with no choice.
“I just wanted to write to say that I was sorry I could not let you know earlier about my resignation this morning. I am sure you can understand why.
“I am also sorry that we will not be working together any more. As you know, I greatly respect you and have always had an excellent working relationship. My resignation is not a reflection on that, and so I feel I owe you an explanation.
“Our decision to leave is rooted in a deep belief that something has to be done to save an institution with as proud a history and as significant impact on Kenyan political life as the Daily Nation. Our resignations may not be enough to reverse the trend away from critical and engaged journalism – indeed, I am fairly sure that it will not be – but we had to try.
“It is not just the sacking of Denis Galava or the contracts not being renewed for David Ndii and Gado. It is not just the fact that my piece was not published int he main newspaper last weekend, or that certain elements that mention departed Nation colleagues were removed. And it is not just the publication of a fake obituary for Jimmi Wanjigi, or the fact that certain stories are being spiked or watered down.
“Any one of these could have even excused or put down to a mistake. But all of these things together tell a far more worrying story and one that we cannot ignore. I suspect that many Nation employees feel the same, and that some would leave with us, if they could afford to.
“That said, I am very sad to be going. I have loved writing for the Nation, and I wish I could continue to do so. But recently I have been thinking about what I will say in years to come when people ask me what I did in the struggle for civil liberties and media freedom in Kenya, and my answer cannot just be: “I kept writing”.
“In my columns I often demand that people uphold democratic standards and live by their own principles. As someone that talks the talk – and talks quite so much – I must also be willing to walk the walk.
“I hope that you will understand the reasons for my resignation, even though you may not agree with it, and that we will get to work together one day.
“The pen may be mightier than the sword, but sometimes it is most powerful when you put it down.
“See you on eat other side.”
Tweeting after her resignation Professor Lynch said: “It has been a great privilege to write for the Nation for the past 4 years and it is with a very heavy heart that I’ve resigned today.”
Father Dolan, who has lived in Kenya for 35 years, also used social media to announce his resignation to his followers, Tweeting: “Today we pagemates stood up for truth.”