This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 18 March 2016.
News that Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (known as Gado) has been dismissed from the Nation Media Group's Daily Nation, allegedly due to political pressure, is deeply concerning, PEN International, PEN Kenya, PEN South Africa, South African satirical cartoonist Zapiro and the South African newspaper the Mail & Guardian said today. The group called for him to be reinstated or compensated.
Speaking to PEN Kenya's President, Khainga O'Okwemba, Gado said: 'It is unfortunate that the Nation is succumbing to corporate and political pressure. The manner in which I was sacked is unacceptable. But it's not just Gado; this should not happen to any journalist. Political pressures in newsrooms are always there, but it's how they are handled that matters.' He told O'Okwemba that he has taken legal action against Nation Media Group.
Godfrey Mwampembwa is the most syndicated political cartoonist in East and Central Africa, and has worked for Kenya's Daily Nation since 1992. His drawings have touched on politically sensitive issues, including a 2009 cartoon that mocked President Kenyatta (finance minister at the time) for a $100 million accounting error. Kenyatta tried to sue him over this cartoon. In 2015, Gado, who is originally from Tanzania, published a cartoon about former Tanzanian President Kikwete in the sister paper of the Nation, the East African, which was banned in Tanzania. This led his bosses at the Nation Media Group to convince him to take a sabbatical, which he did.
In January 2016, when he contacted his employer to make plans to return to work, he was invited to a meeting on 5 February where he was given a letter stating that the company would not be renewing his contract when his sabbatical leave expired, without offering any explanation. According to reports, editor-in-chief Tom Mshindi denied that Gado's sacking had anything to do with political pressure.
It is clear that what has happened to Gado reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in Kenya...Gado's colleagues have correctly said that if this can happen to Gado, it can happen to anyone.
South African satirical cartoonist Zapiro
This incident comes after editor Denis Galava was dismissed in January 2016, not long after he wrote an editorial that was critical of the Kenyan president in the Saturday Nation newspaper, also owned by the Nation Media Group, raising serious concerns about the freedom of the press in Kenya.
'The gains made in democracy and the critical role the Kenyan media has played are being eroded by the systematic attack on media practitioners, especially journalists. The news of the sacking of the celebrated cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) is shocking; this coming hot on the heels of another high profile sacking of editor Denis Galava,' said Khainga O'Okwemba, President of PEN Kenya Centre.
'It seems this is calculated to weaken the media ahead of the general elections next year: the stakes are just too high and independent and critical voices are a species the government would love to get rid of.'
South African satirical cartoonist and PEN South Africa member Zapiro had the following to say in support of Gado: 'I am utterly shocked to hear that Gado has been fired and will no longer be seen in the Daily Nation. He is a respected colleague, a superb cartoonist and a friend. The scope and impact of his cartoons, particularly about East Africa but also more broadly about the continent as a whole, make him arguably the most important cartoonist in Africa. It is clear that what has happened to Gado reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in Kenya and that the editor of the Daily Nation has caved in to political pressure from the country's rulers. Gado's colleagues have correctly said that if this can happen to Gado, it can happen to anyone. I express my deep appreciation of Gado's work over more than two decades and my solidarity with him at the capriciousness of the decision to force him out.'
Salil Tripathi, Chair, Writers-in-Prison Committee, PEN International, said 'It seems clear from the sequence of events that the termination of Gado's contract with the Daily Nation has more to do with his unsparing political commentary through his cartoons, and as such, is intended to undermine his right to express his views freely, than for any other reason. This is distressing and wrong; it undermines Kenya's own tradition of satire. This does not bode well for Kenyan democracy and is another indicator of rising intolerance against political criticism by governments in many parts of the world.'