Kenya: challenges facing the media with elections on the horizon

By Keith Somerville

In its review of the media in Africa in published in 2011, the Africa office of the International Federations of Journalists lamented that while out that the final communique of the African Union summit in that year spoke of the need for the rule of law, good governance and the encouragement of democratic practices as shared values across Africa it didn’t mention a free media.  The IFJ emphasised that despite a concerted effort by media stakeholders and civil society groups to lobby AU leaders and African heads of state to include press freedom, it was missing from the communique and that for the heads of state “press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information for citizens, are not yet values they share” .  The Federation also pointed out that in the year preceding the report 12  African journalists had been assassinated, 5 killed “accidentally”, 34 jailed and hundreds intimidated, threatened, physically attacked or forced into exile.  Many more had been censored, bribed or sacked to ensure that damaging or critical stories weren’t broadcast or published and that governments and major political movements were able to control the content of the press


In this environment the development of a strong fourth estate in individual countries is uneven and beset by obstacles and frequent setbacks.   Taking the example of Kenya, in some ways it show aspects of a thriving press, courageous and talented journalists and a striving for greater press freedom and freedom of information, but journalists will face major challenges  in the current year – challenges that, if overcome, could lead to advances in media freedom. If the challenges prove too hard, there could be an effective decline in the quality of the press and the worsening of the environment for reporting, publishing and broadcasting freely and for the benefit of  Kenyans.

Kenya – harassment, hate and the hustings


Even under the autocratic rule of Jomo Kenyatta and then Daniel arap Moi and the Kanu party, the Kenyan press enjoyed somewhat more freedom than its counterparts in much of Africa.  Benefitting from newspapers set up under colonialism to serve the colonists but continuing to operate after independence with foreign ownership, Kenyans were able to get more of an idea of how they were governed than in states where the media was totally under state control.  That’s not to say that the press was free but it had a certain leeway and operated as much under a system of self-censorship as under direct state restriction, though criticism of the government was severely limited. The printed media was dominated by the Nation Group (owned by the Agha Khan), which published the widely-read and authoritative (within the parameters described) Daily Nation, and the Standard group owned, then, by the British-based Lonrho multinational, which published the Standard.

Broadcasting, until the end of the one-party era, remained under state control and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) was (and to a lesser but still significant extent still is) the mouthpiece of the state – something criticised heavily by media observers and the European Union election monitoring team during the December 2007 elections.  It was only after the formal legalisation of multiparty politics that the press became a forum for lively political debate.  Lacking a history or experience of press freedom, this debate was often unfocused and unstructured and a new factor came into play, which remains dominant today – media outlets came under the control of politicians and leading businessmen, often through proxy or covert ownership.  The Standard was sold by Lonrho and is now owned by a group of Kenyan businessmen. Since 2002 it has has been viewed as an opposition newspaper – when Lonrho sold the newspaper the first chairman of the new Standard board was Mark Too, a close relation of Moi and the paper is now regarded as part of the Moi family’s business empire

Politically motivated ownership of newspapers and other media outlets is widespread though often hidden.  Many media observers I’ve met and consulted in Nairobi believe that the controversial Kalenjin leader William Ruto, indicted by the International Criminal Court  for crimes against humanity relating to the 2007-8 post-election violence, is behind the Kalenjin radio station Kass FM and that Uhuru Kenyatta (also indicted on similar charges by the ICC) is behind K24 TV and Kameme FM radio.  Senior journalists and executives at Kass and Kameme deny the links with Ruto and  Kenyatta.

During the 2007-8 elections, the press and broadcast media were relatively free to reflect the political debates, but the European elections monitors, human rights groups and the BBC World Service Trust, who all studied the elections and media behaviour concluded that they but there is evidence that they failed to provide equitable coverage of political leaders and parties. Different media outlets expressed clear preferences for candidates or parties and the selection of stories was far from impartial Journalists in Kenya have told me that politicians use their influence in stations owned by proxies or allies to control coverage or will bribe or threaten journalists to cover certain stories or politicians and ignore others.

As Kenya approaches a new election season, there is little indication that the situation has improved.  Elections have been scheduled for March 2013 but President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga (who were rivals in 2007) can’t agree on the date and there may be a challenge in court to the timing.  Kibaki, supported by the Nation group in 2007, can’t stand again under the constitution and it was expected that Uhuru Kenyatta, in an alliance with William Ruto, would stand in his place against Odinga – though it’s never been clear what Ruto would get from such a deal. In such a case the media close to Kenyatta and Ruto would undoubtedly vociferously support them and coverage would be as partial as five years ago.  Odinga is likely to get support from the Standard, not because Moi wants to see him as President, but because Moi’s competition for support of the Kalenjin community in the Rift Valley with William Ruto would lead him to support whoever opposes Ruto.

The other key media issue likely to emerge is the use of the media – particularly vernacular radio stations – to broadcast inflammatory political messages that could inflame tensions and lead to violence, as after the 2007 elections.  Kenya has a number of vernacular stations – the most important being Kameme FM, Inooro FM and Coro FM (Kikuyu),  Chamge FM, Kass FM and Rehema Radio (Kalenjin), Ramogi FM and Lake Victoria (Luo), Mulembe FM (Luhya) and Mbaitu FM (Kamba). In 2008, Kass, Inooro, Kameme, Romagi and Lake Victoria were all accused at various times of broadcasting hate message at supporters of rival political groups and at members of other language communities.  One result is that Joshua arap sang, main presenter and editor-in-chief at Kass has been indicted by the ICC and the charges relate partly to his broadcasting at Kass.

In February 2010, the chief government media officer, Alfred Mutua, told the author that the government was unhappy about some of the material broadcast by vernacular stations but could not act under existing laws and without incurring accusations of stifling radio broadcasters critical of the government.  But later in the year the government-appointed National Cohesion and Integration Commission warned a number of stations about hate broadcasting during the referendum campaign on the constitution – Kass FM was among the stations warned.

The results of the Sang trial at the ICC could have major effects for the Kenyan media if  the charges are pressed and he is found guilty of broadcasting hate speech as part of the wider charges of crimes against humanity.  This could lead to pressure for legislation to rein in vernacular stations.  But of wider importance is the highly political nature of the media at election times – when Kenyans have to work hard to put together a clear picture of the candidates and what they really stand for from the flood of highly partial material published and broadcast.  The election will not just be a test of politicians and their policies, but also of the health of the media and it be an opportunity to see if those who own or influence it have learned the lessons of 2007-8.


Keith Somerville, lecturer in Humanitarian Communications, University of Kent, Canterbury, and founder/editor of A

2 responses to “Kenya: challenges facing the media with elections on the horizon

  1. patience Wanjiru

    Hope the media in Kenya will not let us down but on the other hand we Kenyans have a role to play.Watch the space clearly and don’t let any politician separate us!!!!We are more worthy united

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