The Kenyan government has launched what amounts to a brazen assault on press freedom, sending hooded police into the offices of a major newspaper and burning an entire print run. The minister of Internal Security was ready with a depressingly typical bit of postcolonial African repressive threat-in-plain-sight bravado: “If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.” Translation: stop covering corruption in the government, or else.
For all you can’t-happen-here types, you might want to listen carefully to the way that the Kenyan government has justified its actions. First, in the name of national security, claiming that the paper was plotting to stir up ethnic unrest in its coverage of government corruption. Guess what? They can’t say more because to go into the details would compromise their ability to gather information. That sounds familiar. No oversight, no transparency, no accountability, and a pervasive logic of “national security” are structurally bad things: you can’t shake your finger scoldingly at African governments but nod approvingly at the same sort of policy and rhetoric cocktail when it’s “good guys”.
Second, there’s a clear reference to the now-orthodox historical narrative about genocide in Rwanda that names radio broadcasts as an important cause of the killings. This is a good example of why details and principles need to work together. It’s important to maintain the principle that even dangerous speech (whether it’s ethnic mobilization in postcolonial Africa or David Irving denying the Holocaust) has to be protected–but also to hold people who want to argue otherwise responsible to the details. The radio broadcasts in Rwanda came directly and demonstrably from a cabal of actors within pre-genocide government, and were highly coordinated. The Kenyan government is going after speech in civil society and charging in the vaguest possible terms that this speech has malicious intent. Even if you think speech in some contexts ought to be restricted (and I don’t), the standard of proof has to be extraordinarily high. If you’re going to talk about radio in Rwanda, and suggest that perhaps that shows that in some circumstances, speech is too dangerous to be permitted (and yes, quite a few academics and policy experts have done just that) you ought to know you’re offering a loaded rhetorical weapon to a broad range of scoundrels.