Kenya's Censorship King: Head Of Film Board Accused Of Overstepping

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 7:58 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the most controversial men in Kenya is named Ezekiel Mutua. He's known for a campaign of censorship and a broad definition of pornography. He's the head of Kenya's film board, but has expanded his mandate to music, internet and advertisements. NPR's Eyder Peralta wanted to know more about him and what he's done.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: You cannot watch television in Kenya without hearing mention of Ezekiel Mutua.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: And what do you know? Ezekiel Mutua, the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board is trending again. And he's...

PERALTA: Mutua and his government-appointed film board go way beyond movies. Mutua has blacklisted musicians and tried to keep Netflix out of the country. He has taken issue with a Coca-Cola commercial featuring a passionate kissing scene. We'll talk to Mutua later. But first, we'll look at perhaps his most high-profile action...

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ART ATTACK: Maybe a sex rights movement.

PERALTA: ...When he ordered the arrest of a group of Kenyan artists who starred in a cover of Macklemore's "Same Love."

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ART ATTACK: (Rapping) This is me. This is you. This is us. This is the world, wide world, wide world, cold world, love world.

PERALTA: The video showed same-sex couples kissing. Mutua called it pornography. George Barasa, one of the creators of the video, called it autobiographical.

GEORGE BARASA: When he banned my music, hurt me a lot because it's based on my story. It was a tribute about me, you know, about my entire life. It was something that happened. It wasn't a fake. It wasn't fictional.

PERALTA: Barasa has suffered a lot. His parents threw him out of his house when they found out he was gay. He's attempted suicide. And since he's become an LGBT activist, he's been evicted many times. In Kenya, he says, the law doesn't protect him. But he always found a kind of justice in art.

BARASA: And now Ezekiel Mutua has threatened it, you know. And since he has realized that the LGBT are using art to advocate and to sensitize people and making people aware of their rights, he's now trying to close that door as well.

PERALTA: Kenya is actually quite a liberal country in comparison to its neighbors. But people who track human rights here worry that Matua is just the tip of a greater movement toward suppression.

ROLAND EBOLE: To me, Ezekiel Mutua is the person who plays at the whims of whoever really feeds him.

PERALTA: That's Roland Ebole of Freedom House. He says Mutua is part of a government that has been trying to curb freedom of expression to eliminate dissent. Mutua, for example, has proposed registering every device that is uploading any content to social media. And he has proposed regulating public performances, which Ebole says leaves the door wide open to banning political rallies. When you put all the pieces together...

EBOLE: You see some kind of concerted efforts to kind of control the kind of cities and activism that we have seen going on in Kenya.

PERALTA: I chased Mutua for a month or so. He always answers his phone, but he's also always busy. But finally one day, he says he can meet at a restaurant in the middle of Nairobi. I find a consummate politician - great hair, tailored suit. He says he has no political motivation with his censorship. Instead, he says, he wants to preserve Kenya's, quote, "culture and national values."

EZEKIEL MUTUA: Every country in the world that wants to progress begins by laying a moral foundation.

PERALTA: Without that foundation, he says, insecurity, corruption and even terrorism can flourish. Mutua had just come back from the United Arab Emirates, a country that he says has used censorship to mold what he sees as a model society.

MUTUA: Because they have a culture that demonizes stealing or those kind of crimes.

PERALTA: But is that possible in a democracy?

MUTUA: That's a challenge. It's a balancing act. And I think ultimately, as you enjoy these freedoms, there will be no better way to enjoy them than to enjoy them in the context of our cultural values.

PERALTA: So if he had his way, that would mean that "Same Love" video would get taken down from YouTube. And the industry would come to understand what most Kenyans find objectionable and censor themselves. When that happens, he says, he becomes irrelevant, and his job will be done. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGULARIS SONG, "DIAPHANOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.