The free world watches with increasing dismay as President Daniel Arap Moi ignores his own constitution and exercises increasingly repressive measures against dissent in Kenya.

For some American journalists, the dismay is mixed with distress that they failed to listen more carefully to early warnings of the coming repression voiced by a young Kenyan named Gitobu Imathiu Imanyara. Imanyara was among those arrested this month by Moi's police and is now being held without charge.

Only last May, at a conference for journalists on Africa held at Harvard University, Imanyara chided the Americans for what he called their failure to cover the more subtle stories of issues and process in Kenya.

"Africa is always seen in terms of African leaders," he said. "In Kenya, the issue was, 'After Kenyatta, what?' In 1978 Kenyatta died, and for the next 12 years Moi was seen in terms of an African leader who showed how change can be peaceful and constitutional. In the process, the U.S. news media forgot to address the issues.

"So while Moi has been busy destroying the institutions that ensured his takeover constitutionally, there has not been a paragraph about this in the U.S. news agencies. Where there is a bloodbath, American news agencies will ask, why did this happen? The 160 foreign correspondents in Nairobi -- the most in any country all of Africa -- closed their eyes and did not see the country change from an emerging democracy into one where its democratic institutions are destroyed. This has been a gradual process over the past 12 years, and it never made news."

When Imanyara made that statement at the conference cosponsored by the Nieman Foundation and the African American Institute, he had every reason not to go back to Kenya.

He knew he was unpopular with the government. He had been for years, ever since he stepped forward to defend the man accused of killing Joy Adamson, author of "Born Free" and one of the world's leading wildlife conservationists. He did so because he was convinced the confession used to convict the man had been obtained by government torture. Pursuing the case through appeals, Imanyara was unable to reverse the conviction. But he did win a court-ordered directive that the law under which the police had acted to gain the confession be changed to protect the rights of suspects, only to see the government repudiate the court's directive as "anti-government."

"This was the turning point in my life," Imanyara wrote later. "I saw how the law could be misused to serve personal selfish ends."

Imanyara also knew the magazine he had created in 1987, The Nairobi Law Monthly, to advocate respect for the law and the constitution displeased Moi for reminding him of the constitution and its restrictions on his legal powers. He knew the costs as well. He had been sentenced to five years in prison on specious charges brought after he defended a group of air force officers charged with attempting a coup. Two years of his sentence were spent in solitary confinement, but the experience seemed only to deepen his commitment to the law.

A number of Americans were inspired by his work both as a human rights lawyer and as a self-taught journalist, and sought ways to help in his work. The Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship program had offered to finance a stay in the United States.

But as Imanyara told the Harvard conference, he had grown increasingly concerned for the future of his country and could not afford the time away from his work.

"Our constitution is being shredded every day," he said. "And I promised myself when released from prison that I would devote the rest of my life to exposing official injustice and human rights abuses by public officers. I started my magazine to do this as well as to educate Kenyans of their basic legal rights."

It is a constitution worthy of defense, Imanyara said, and one in which Americans should have a special interest, since it was largely written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had difficulty understanding how the press and the people of the United States were paying so little attention to a process that was eating the heart out of a constitution patterned after our own and largely written by one of our own.

He was talking about all this on the phone with Ray Bonner, a writer for The New Yorker based in Nairobi, this month when he said:

"They're coming. A white Peugeot. License 504. They're coming to arrest me." Then silence. The line went dead.

The writer is curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.