Lawyers John Khaminwa (L), James Orengo (C) and Harun Ndubi represent politician and lawyer Miguna Miguna's case at a court in Nairobi, Kenya. Picture: John Okoyo/Xinhua
A generation of older Kenyans fear their nation is sliding back to the 1980s, when dissent was criminalised, basic human rights blatantly violated and a free press aggressively subjugated.

This assessment is not far from the truth, judging by the events of the past week. Three of Kenya’s leading and privately owned TV stations remain off-air - despite a court order decreeing their resumption of transmission.

Kenyan Internal Security Minister Fred Matiang’i claims the stations were shut down for jeopardising state security after they defied an order prohibiting live transmission of a mock inauguration by opposition chief Raila Odinga on January 30 as “the people’s president”.

Odinga’s claim is tenuous. He alleges to have won the August 2017 presidential poll, but nonetheless contested the results in the nation’s apex court and, in an unprecedented move, had the poll outcome annulled.

But he boycotted the repeat poll, alleging substantial reforms had not been effected to guarantee a clean poll, leaving the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, to sail through unchallenged.

Odinga’s “inauguration” was largely uneventful and legally inconsequential. Nonetheless, the government has responded with heavy-handedness.

The lawyers who conducted the oath have been arrested - one flushed out of his home through the use of explosives. He remains in custody, despite a court order to release him on bail.

And threats of arrest saw journalists cower under their desks overnight.

The media shutdown is an escalation of a systematic clampdown that has been a long time coming. Over the past five years, the Kenyatta administration has been rabidly hysterical, instigating the sacking of journalists and editors it could not coerce or induce into co-operation.

Some of the prominent sackings include that of Godfrey “Gado” Mwampembwa, one of Africa’s finest cartoonists, who was cut loose by The Nation, the largest newspaper group in the region, in 2016.

A Tanzanian national who plied his trade in Nairobi for more than 20 years, Gado aroused the ire of Tanzanian authorities after caricaturing then president Jakaya Kikwete being fed by a bevy of beauties, appropriately named “Cronyism”, “Incompetence” and “Corruption”, among others - alluding to the ills that beset Kikwete’s government.

Next in line was The Nation’s senior editor, Denis Galava, who was pushed out of newspapers in 2016 for penning a new year palaver blasting Kenyatta for sleeping on the job even as the nation took the road to ruin.

Galava was sacked immediately, despite his assessment being fair and accurate. The Nation’s explanation that his sacking was instigated by his alleged breach of in-house protocols was ineffectual, especially after the management’s grovelling apology to the Tanzanian authorities, to mend relations with Dar es Salaam over Gado’s debacle.

Things were not any better at The Standard - the second largest and the oldest media group within the region, where editorial director Chaacha Mwita was sacked for allegedly sanctioning articles that imputed the Kenyatta administration was speaking out of two sides of its mouth - by advocating austerity measures while indulging in opulence in cabinet retreats in posh hotels.

Once again, the report was fact-based, utilising publicly available information to approximate expenses. Efforts to solicit comments from government officials were rebuffed.

That journalists were fired from the two largest media organisations for discharging their duty signalled the emasculation of the once vibrant enterprises, but the worst was yet to come.

In a move described by a senior Kenyan editor as “the biggest anti-press freedom project since 1902” (when the oldest newspaper was founded in Kenya), the government introduced a centralised advertising agency that would determine where to place its advertisements.

This guaranteed the dismantling of the media, through, to use the inventive term by the former editor of the The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, “fiscing” - abbreviation for “financially induced self- censorship”.

Put simply, government advertising was to be deployed to pliant media for favourable coverage. But even this dangling of the carrot has proved inefficient in securing the media’s co-operation - so a big stick comes in handy, as the events of the past week illustrated.

When Kenyatta, the son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta, took the reins in April 2013, his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, who inherited a country bankrupted by corruption and steered it towards growth and national pride, enthused that he was leaving the country in the hands of a “dynamic duo”.

Kenyatta, the youngest leader in Kenya’s 50 years of independence, and who uses social media to propagate an image of a suave, cosmopolitan politician committed to social change, appears determined to roll back the freedoms entrenched by his predecessor.

But by drawing parallels between Kenyatta’s government and that of his mentor, second president Daniel arap Moi, who plundered the country for 24 years, Kenyans are missing one crucial point: vintage Moi did not disregard court orders.

And in this information age, only those who live in the Stone Age can envision curtailing Kenyans’ right to free expression. There is no doubt the nation’s vibrant media will find strength in its history and re-establish itself as the voice and spirit of the Kenyan people - a true force for democracy.

* Kimani is a Kenyan journalist and author of, most recently, Dance of the Jakaranda, a New York Times Notable Book.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.