September 19th 2017

Media / Watchdog

Cartoonists the new target of censorship, signifying the power of a long-neglected medium

The Saturday Standard editor was apparently inclined to avoid giving a seal of approval to a perception now well entrenched in the body politics: of the country bleeding even as the president ingenuously believes things are just fine, and his critics such as Raila Odinga are just being jealous.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comMonday, 14 Nov 2016 17:57 EAT

The Saturday Standard blacked out an acerbic cartoon by the newspaper group’s lead cartoonist Paul Kelemba (popularly known as Maddo) satirizing the corruption in the Jubilee government at the last minute and in its place republished an old one about road safety. The censored cartoon has been shared hundreds of times on social media and praised by hundreds of Kenyans including civil society activist Boniface Mwangi and Catholic priest Father Gabriel Dolan.

It is not clear why the Standard editors yanked out the cartoon, which by any standard was not the riskiest they would have had to carry in recent history. A source at the Standard say the cartoon had been on the news budget and was only removed when the editor "chickened out" of publishing it, by which time it was too late for Maddo to draw a replacement. The cartoon contained explicit imagery of the president using his office primarily to the benefit of his family members, in addition to insinuating a laisser-faire approach to time management at State House.

For example, it depicted the president as still in bed at 10.30am, alone in an outsized bed only to be woken up a phone call from his mother to which he complains that it is too early “for you to call with the day’s instructions.” At noon, the president, freshened up and donning a classy suit, is walking around the State House with his sister, who reminds him of a meeting with foreign envoys that should have begun at 9am. The sister reports also that opposition leader Raila Odinga “is alleging another scam”, to which the president responds curtly that he’s decided to “ignore Raila’s insults and petty politics and focus on development”.

The head of state then proceeds to a meeting with his deputy William Ruto, with whom he enjoys good chatter. Seemingly in agreement on other items, he asks Mr Ruto to stop his accusations against former cabinet secretary Anne Waiguru. “Poa Willy. Wachana na yule mama please,” he says. Mr Ruto then goes to represent the president at the meeting with the foreign envoys, which finally takes place at 1.45pm, and he tells the envoys sternly: “We are not puppets of the West.”

At 4.09pm, the president meets members of a Kikuyu women group who come to pay him homage in tribal solidarity, oblivious of the damage corruption wreaks on Kenya. He exhorts them to ignore Raila, who is “always insulting me instead of waiting for his turn to eat meat.” The day ends with the president at a meeting with his advisers where, as he orders the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from South Sudan, he’s interrupted by a phone call from another sister requesting his facilitation for the registration of a non-profit group “Rocket Disabled NGO”.

Taken together, the images presented a profoundly critical look at today’s politics, with the president still yet to comment on the Sh5.3 billion Ministry of Health scandal, in which his sister and cousin were implicated, more than two weeks since the Nation Media Group exposed the scandal. The Saturday Standard editor was apparently inclined to avoid giving a seal of approval to a perception now well entrenched in the body politics: of the country bleeding even as the president ingenuously believes things are just fine, and his critics such as Raila Odinga are just being jealous.

But in an era of social media, the cartoon leaked, gaining probably more attention and impact than it probably would have had achieved in the newspaper. The Standard has taken a great hit in credibility as well, with readers debating the rationale for suppressing a cartoon that captures the essence of what many politicians and even journalists have been saying in the newspaper’s pages since news of the Ministry of Health scandal broke.

As less and less critical commentary runs in the op-ed pages of mainstream media, cartoonists have flourished over the months, pushing the boundaries of acceptable commentary thereby earning the wrath of state operatives eager to control the media. Maddo and former Nation cartoonist Godfrey Mwapembwa, popularly known as ‘Gado', have preserved the stinging bites and iconoclastic tastes of the industry. Gado was eventually fired by the Nation last year after a series of controversial drawings that drew the ire of State House. He now works for the Standard as well.

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