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How free is the free press in Kenya?

Kenya’s press freedom credentials are among the best in Africa, making the country a beacon for beleaguered journalists from elsewhere on the continent. But with the wane of investigative reporting, and the government's threatening 2010 Media Bill, can this reputation last?
Ron Singer
19 August 2011

On the face of it, Kenyan journalists enjoy an environment that is among the most hospitable in Africa. The Executive branch of government currently operates under a power-sharing agreement between the nation’s two most prominent politicians, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who belong to two of the main, rival ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo. Both of the other branches of government, the Judiciary and the Legislative, have demonstrated at least intermittent willingness to thwart the Executive. These checks and balances foster democracy, including a free press.

Press suppression and violence against journalists represent fairly isolated events in recent Kenyan history rather than the norm. After an infamous Government raid on a radio station in 2006, a 2007 bill to tighten press restrictions was voted down by the Kenyan Parliament. Kenya’s recently adopted liberal constitution goes a long way towards protecting the rights and interests of many groups, including journalists. For the most part, the media is under private ownership; print, broadcast, and Internet outlets are numerous and varied; and the nation’s press institutions are well-established and vigorous. In fact, Kenya is a beacon, and in some cases a home, to journalists in exile from repressive neighbouring countries.

To look more closely, however, is to discover a much more nuanced reality: Kenyan journalism has serious limitations. There are two main, linked causes – corruption and ethnic partisanship – which contribute to a kind of self-censorship by the media. Partisanship and corruption can probably be blamed for one of the Kenyan press’s most inglorious hours: its coverage of the rigged elections of 2007 and the horrendous ethnic massacres that followed. The role of the largest newspaper, The Nation, in this complex and volatile situation was widely criticised – most notably for alleged pro-Kikuyu bias, a charge that is still levelled against the paper’s leadership. Nor do most impartial analysts absolve the country’s second newspaper, The Standard, of the same charge, ethnic bias.

While the voting was taking place, The Nation failed to report precinct results quickly enough to forestall decisive rigging. Afterwards, the editors made the lame excuse that their new technology had failed, but critics asked why they had not used the older tools, such as poll-watchers and tape recorders, which had worked well during a prior election and a referendum. Faced with the ensuing massacres of 2007-08, The Nation adopted a policy of not naming perpetrators on the grounds that to have done so would only have fuelled more violence. That policy is still subject to heated debate.

In press reformer Chaacha Mwita’s Citizen Power: A Different Kind of Politics, a Different Kind of Journalism (2009), I read a harrowing story about ethnicity. Then-Managing editor of The Standard, Chaacha tried to get better coverage of the 2007 elections by sending reporters to areas where the majority population was not their own ethnic group. Not only did it turn out that language and other cultural gaps limited the effectiveness of these reporters, but when the violence broke out, some of them fell victim themselves.                                                                                                                  

In addition to the eviscerating effects of ethnic chauvinism, there are many other kinds of complexity, murkiness and danger that dog the Kenyan press, including several that outsiders may not understand. To my surprise, Professor Magayu K. Magayu of the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism, introduced the subject of juju, or magic, telling me how Odinga’s party, the Orange Democratic movement (ODM), imported a Tanzanian sorcerer to help them during the 2007 elections.

But by far the two greatest difficulties are ethnicity and corruption. The adage, ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’, refers to the ethnic group of the ruling party. Under Jomo Kenyatta, this meant the Kikuyu; under Daniel arap Moi, the Kalenjin; under Kibaki, the Kikuyu (again); and currently, once again, the Kikuyu, but the Luo as well (through Odinga). In 2003, John Githongo, a Kikuyu, himself, was appointed Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics by the self-proclaimed reformer, Kibaki. In 2006, Githongo unveiled widespread fraud in what came to be known as the Anglo-Leasing scandal, in which the government was deeply implicated. Only after The New York Times broke the story did the scandal find its way into the Kenyan press. A hue and cry drove Githongo into exile, in part for ‘betraying his own people’. Back home, he now runs an NGO working to solve one of the root problems of Kenyan democracy, ethnic chauvinism.

 

 

This cartoon by the famous political satirist, Gado, which depicts the Anglo-Leasing Scandal, was published in The Nation, January, 2009. The blank face represents the dummy company through which funds were channeled. The small figures are Kenyan politicians.

I asked numerous people whom I interviewed in Nairobi during February 2011 why there was so much ‘he-said-she-said’ journalism in Kenya, and so little probing investigative reporting. Most of the answers turned on money. For instance, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Media Editor for the Nation Group, and possibly East Africa’s most respected journalist, had this to say:

Young reporters have no institutional memory. 1996: ancient history! So that kind of reporting is dying away. It’s partly because in the media – TV, radio, newspapers – you have star journalists who are paid tremendous salaries. Everyone gets caught up in that, so you have no old-fashioned journalism. They want to do what gets you in front of the camera, makes you a talking point.

What about Obbo himself? It may be that his independence is partly compromised by his dual functions as editor and journalist. If his articles have an edge, they lack the strongly subversive quality of, say, Gado’s work. For example, Obbo recently wrote an in-depth analysis of the strategic motives, including economic ones, behind African leaders’ having taken the positions they took for, against, or in-between the NATO no-fly zone over Libya. But Kenya does not figure much in this article.

The limitations of Obbo’s investigative work illustrate the danger of exaggerating the achievements of the Kenyan press. It is also worth noting that two of the boldest voices in Kenyan journalism belong to a Ugandan – Obbo  and a Tanzanian, Gado. The latter also spoke to me about money and the press. In describing his own relatively fortunate independence, Gado, a Nyerere-phile, spoke of self-censorship by the Kenyan media. His very popular TV political satire program, The XYZ Show, only manages to escape censorship by the station because Gado owns his own production company, which is financed by private donors. I also asked him about bribery:

RS: I’ve heard that reporters for some of the less responsible papers are not above taking bribes from politicians.

G: Even in the responsible papers!

RS: You mean, like The Nation?

G: There have been allegations, I don’t know how true. But Kenyan politicians would do it. I try to avoid even attending functions where the leaders will be present, so they will not approach me with propositions.

Chaacha Mwita’s explanation of Kenya’s poor performance in investigative journalism involved, once again, money and corruption:

It’s because of the ties of the media managers. They do not want to investigate certain things. It’s not because it’s too expensive. The same money they pay journalists for writing ‘he-said-she-said’ type of stories could be used for investigative journalism. There is something journalists do not want to talk about: the relationship between the business world and media ownership. A lot of advertising comes from the government and business world, which is what investigative journalism would probe.

To sum up, just as ethnic partisanship acts as one main brake on Kenyan journalism, capitalism is the other. Githongo, an economist by training, blamed capitalism for the close ties of the Kenyan press to the nation’s business and political establishments. Taking the analysis to a global level, he also blamed capitalism for the ascendancy of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, with its sleaze and conservative political agenda, and for the tenuous economic state of the liberal media across the rich world. With the currently breaking news about ‘Omnigate’, however, one can hope that this tendency will at least be slowed.

As if all the means through which the Kenyan press hobbles itself were not bad enough, the Kenyan government has recently threatened to become a less reliable ally:

Conditions for Kenyan journalists could soon deteriorate, said […] Jared Obuya, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Kenyan Union of Journalists. Contrary to the country’s new constitution, which includes strong clauses safeguarding press freedom, the government is actively seeking to reintroduce media control through the courts. The 2010 Media Bill, proposed by the Ministry of Information, would do away with the principle of self-regulation and place media regulation under another arm of the government –  the often compromised Kenyan judiciary.

All of these shortcomings notwithstanding, the reader should not sell the Kenyan press short. In terms of resources, institutional framework, government policies, and, consequently, the overall quality – and quantity – of its accomplishments, Kenyan journalism is light years ahead of most of its counterparts in Africa. But the Kenyan press is about to face a supreme test.

The 2005 elections and their violent aftermath constituted a disaster for both journalism and the nation as a whole, from which recovery is still not complete. 

Understandably, this political trauma has had a great impact on how Kenyans see their future. Some fear a repeat performance of 2007-08 next year, when elections are once more due to take place. But others say a lesson has been learned, that this time the press and politicians will pull together to steer Kenya through fair and peaceful elections. Professor Magayu, for instance, recalled the aftermath of 2007-08:

MM: In 2008, they could look at what happened. When the mayhem was over, they all came together in some kind of acceptance that they needed to work responsibly. All the papers wrote one headline, a demonstration of unity, an agreement to work together as a team, as a medium that would articulate the wishes of the country, rather than the politicians.   

Just before I left Nairobi, Gado invited me to lunch at a downtown restaurant. As we walked along the sidewalk that hot Saturday afternoon, he asked, ‘What have you learned in Kenya? What will you write about us?’ My best answer is that it is possible to believe the reality of Kenyan journalism may one day match the reputation which makes the country a beacon and haven for beleaguered journalists.

The Nairobi interviews from which this essay draws will also feature in Ron Singer’s forthcoming book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).

 

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