Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga was sworn in as the “people’s president” last week, maintaining that he did not recognise Uhuru Kenyatta as the President. After defying government warnings, and broadcasting live from the venue of the contentious event, three of Kenya’s biggest TV stations were shutdown. They have been allowed back on air again, but Joy Mueni explains why the closures mark a new low for press freedom in Kenya.
Why has the government taken this stance and does it come as a surprise?
The Kenyan government issued a warning to media houses against airing Odinga’s swearing in as the “people’s president”. They said that any channel broadcasting the event would be shutdown. So, it wasn’t a surprise. But, did the public expect it to go on for seven days? No.
The government has, in a sense, justified its decision by alleging that the media is partisan and that some journalists “work” for the main opposition coalition.
For media experts, the writing has been on the wall for a while. There have been growing concerns about government interference in the media’s work. During the 2017 electoral process, journalists were repeatedly physically attacked by politicians.
Are there no laws protecting the media from censorship like this?
There are various laws that grant the media, and the citizens of Kenya, freedom of expression.
For example, the country’s 2010 Constitution states:
Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes: freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
Freedom and independence of electronic, print and all other types of media is guaranteed
The State shall not exercise control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium
Despite these protections, media freedom isn’t a reality. After the recent media shutdown, activist, Okiya Omtatah went to court seeking the reinstatement of live broadcasting. The court ruled in his favour and an order was granted. But the court order was blocked from being served and the stations stayed off air for six more days.
The Chief Justice David Maraga issued a statement condemning the blatant disregard of court orders. He stated that everybody, including state officers and bodies, must comply with court orders as it is their constitutional and civic duty.
Does this mark a low point in the relationship between Kenya’s media and the government of the day?
Daniel Arap Moi, the second President of Kenya who served from 1978 to 2002, was known for having a repressive regime. During his tenure press freedom was seen to be at its lowest point since independence in 1963.
Until 1992 government-owned media outlets had a monopoly on radio broadcasting. When broadcasting was eventually privatised, Moi’s administration would intimidate or harass journalists critical of his government.
But things are worse today. The 2010 constitution came into effect after Moi left office. If a government can violate the constitution without any consequence, then what purpose does it serve? This blatant disrespect of the law is the beginning of anarchy.
How did the media deal with repression in the past?
Under Moi’s regime journalists were often labelled as traitors. They were accused of producing seditious material, some went into exile and many were jailed without trial. The journalists Wahome Mutahi and Magayu Magayu, for example, were repeatedly jailed. The newspapers and magazines that fought the system were eventually either banned or bankrupted because they were denied advertising revenue.
Years later, media is still heavily reliant on government advertising as it amount to about 30% of all advertisements.
To deal with this repression, media practitioners and bodies like Article 19, Kenya Human Rights Commission agitated for legislation to protect media freedom and prevent infringements of press freedom. As a result, Kenya now has the Media Council Act 2013 and the Kenya Information and Communications (amendment) Act 2013.
In addition, the media council of Kenya, the regulatory arm of the Kenyan media, has come up with a code of conduct for the practice of journalism. The code was designed to act as a self-regulating tool for journalists and has largely served its purpose.
What impact is this having on people’s ability to get information?
While the shutdown is a major red flag to the democratic progress the country has made, it’s happening in the digital age when people have access to the internet. Internet use is huge in Kenya with 88% of the population accessing it using their phones. This has meant that people were able to watch the swearing in broadcasts through YouTube and other social media platforms. There were also smaller information providers like community radio and TV stations that got to shine during the shutdown.
The future of media though dim now, seems bright. The judiciary seems to be independent and this will play a vital role in the fight for press freedom. Journalists are also being trained on how to conduct themselves ethically and professionally and this too is bearing fruit.