Prof. Amartya Sen’s observation that no famine can take place with a free media took on new significance with the shocking discoveries in Kilifi County this week. The Interior Cabinet Secretary’s ban on active press reporting has muddied an otherwise decisive, albeit delayed response to the killing fields of Shakahola. Four days before World Press Freedoms Day on Wednesday, what is at stake?
The preliminary exhumation of over 110 bodies, search for 213 missing persons, arrest of 15 others and rescue of 9 adults and children shattered national disbelief and denial this week. The number of deaths is a third of those reported in conflict-torn Sudan and Kenya is not even at war. Shakahola exposes several trends that we all have allowed to persist. While Islamic radicalisation may have stalked us for two decades, the All-Africa Conference of Churches blew the whistle at Christian fundamentalism and the prosperity gospel four decades ago.
Moral purism and intolerance have been rising in our homes, workplaces, and communities. Failed by economic markets, disinformed by unregulated social media platforms and disappointed by corrupt leaders and ineffective state institutions, citizens have grown more distrustful, anti-factual and cocooned in little echo chambers. Suicide rates have doubled, hope is crashing, leaving not just the victims of Paul Mackenzie, but those of Pastor Ezekiel Odero and other predatory pastors vulnerable.
Rightfully, the public is calling for the resignation or dismissal of intelligence and security officers, greater regulation of religious organisations, expedited implementation of the National Coroner Service Act (2017) and increased investment in mental health and national values. Complex questions of prosecution and justice remain. What just happened? Assisted suicides, organ harvesting, child abuse, terrorism, or mass murder? All these require urgent decisive action before the headlines fade and national attention moves onto the next crisis, celebrity, or hashtag.
Back in Shakahola, the trauma for police investigators, journalists, humanitarian workers, and human rights defenders remains unimaginable. We have several bodies without identities, and missing identities without bodies. The thought that only a fraction of bodies has been found so far must be almost paralysing. As we honour their courage and service, we must also recognise the role of the mass media for breaking this story to the public.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki’s declaration on Wednesday that the 800-acre crime scene is now off limits to journalists must worry us. Every Kenyan has the right to be informed by the media under Constitution Article 33, 34 and 35. Exercising these rights are possible without journalists tampering with evidence preservation or impeding the investigation. A blanket ban opens the door to unnecessary rumours and arguments that our security services failed to protect Kenyans and are now covering up the scandal.
The world marks International Press Freedom Day on Wednesday. The Reporters Without Frontiers 2022 World Press Freedoms Index indicates some progress in the Kenya’s ranking. Between 2021 and 2022, Kenya climbed 33 places to 69 out of 180 countries. While far behind Norway, Denmark and Sweden, Kenya has done much better than Russia, Myanmar, China, and Eritrea who scrape the bottom.
Recent police assaults of journalists covering public protests, state meddling in the Media Council of Kenya leadership succession and blanket bans on news coverage will inevitably hurt this progress and the standing of the Kenya Kwanza administration. More importantly, it will leave this country more vulnerable to the horrific risks, extremist cults pose. An open, informed, and democratic society is our greatest weapon against a repeat of Shakahola. Terrorists in our region know this and this is why they target our way of life. Let’s not give them more ammunition.
Lastly, let us also honour all journalists hurt or killed in the service of the truth on World Press Freedom Day. It has been six months since Pakistani investigative journalist Arshad Sharif was murdered on our soil. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions must double up, conclude their investigation and prosecute his assassins.
Rasna Warah's analysis of what creates a cult and BBC conversation with Haki Africa Director Hussein Khalid are two of the best testimonies on Paul Makenzie's Good News cult and the Shakahola deaths so far.
Several years ago, Amartya Sen said no democracy, with a free press, has ever had major famines
The Reporters Without Frontiers 2022 World Press Freedoms Index can be read here