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Why we must agree to disagree

I should have the right to write anything I choose to on this page. Provided, of course, I don’t write lies, ask you to attack anyone, or cause other types of harm. And you should have the right to disagree with anything I write, and take me to task for my errors or flawed arguments.

What I have just described is the basis of modern civilisation. It is the fundamental premise on which a free, democratic society functions. We agree to allow each other to speak; we agree to allow each other to think what we like. We agree to disagree, and we don’t clobber each other when we do.

These are the rights on which the Republic of Kenya was founded. We are allowed to speak sensibly or talk rot, moan, complain, criticise, evaluate, postulate, whine, cause a din. But in recent weeks we are behaving more like the Republic of Zimbabwe.

We are trying to pass a bill into law that will place severe limits on the all those essential rights. It will give individuals the right to shut the mouths of others, because they don’t like what they hear. The raid by hooded agents of the state on the Standard Group in 2006 was truly one of the lowest points in the history of independent Kenya. And now some people want to embed that vile act into law.

I wrote then: “Scrutiny matters – we behave better when we’re being watched…And for society as a whole, there is one very effective set of ‘eyes’ that matters most – the media. Let us never forget: a free, independent and vibrant media sector is a prerequisite to economic success. Development does not come to places where secrets lie unexposed, where wrongdoing remains buried, where performance failure is not uncovered. We in Kenya, more than most, should know this.”

So why this campaign, breathtaking in its idiocy, to go for the media? I fail to understand. Many of those in charge today have been on the wrong side of intolerance in the recent past. They have been bashed by riot police, poisoned by tear gas, and tortured in dungeons. You would have thought these leaders had learned the lesson of freedom of expression, and would be the first people to champion it.

But no. Here is what they seem to have learned. If people say stuff you don’t like, muzzle them. If they keep shouting, hit them until they stop. If they wear T-shirts complaining about something, arrest them. If they try to meet in public and transmit their views, gas them and disperse them. Bash the people, all in the name of the people.

Those backing the attempts to force a muzzle on the snout of the media have a good reason: they say the media comprises dangerous, irresponsible rascals who inflame passions and cause violence. Really? Why don’t we commission a survey to ask the people who they trust more: media or politicians?

Some members of parliament seem highly aggrieved about the damage done by free media in this country. To a small extent this is true: rogue organisations and journalists who besmirch the profession do exist, and do need to be controlled.

But unless our national average IQ has just dropped 50 points overnight, there are things that should be blatantly obvious to all the citizens of the land. In case they are not, let me highlight them.

Media did not grab most of the arable land in this country and give it to a few dozen people. Media did not construct scam after scam to fleece the taxpayer year after year. Media did not create the culture of ethnic hate and division. Media did not embed arrant incompetence in government. Media did not keep the average Kenyan as poor as the rest of the world was two centuries ago.

We know who did all of that.

Those who claim to lead us are getting a severe wake-up call. They are being booed and hissed at wherever they turn, including their home turf. The people are angry, really angry. Wisdom lies in sensing this anger and defusing it, not in pretending it’s not there and stifling all dissent. Did we really learn nothing from the extremes of the 1990s?

John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the towering intellects of the twentieth century. He said: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common. It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

Well, the “major anxiety” of our people in our time is obvious. It is the feeling of being trapped in a prison of poverty from which there is no escape in your lifetime. That feeling is very, very dangerous. The feeling that there is no hope, if widespread, can have devastating consequences. I can only pray that those leaders who still retain a modicum of sense can see this, and act.

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