U.S. journalist discusses threats to press freedom in Kenya

by Brian Dabbs
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

The Kenyan press, led by well-known English dailies the Daily Nation and The Standard and a vibrant broadcasting sector, has, in the last decade, established itself as a relative safe haven for journalists in the region. In early 2008, the BBC reported that "the country boasts one of Africa's liveliest and most-developed media scenes, spurred by an extensive advertising market and a sizeable middle class."

But according to the press freedom advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists, a "tumultuous 2008," marked by attacks on the press and a new media bill, "threatened the country’s standing as a regional leader in free expression." In January, Kenyan journalist Francis Nyaruri was found decapitated near his hometown of Nyamira, after he wrote a series of articles exposing corruption and malpractice by local officials.

Earlier this year the U.S.-based International Reporting Project (IRP) sent thirteen U.S. editors on a "fact-finding" Gatekeeper Fellowship program to Kenya. Fellow Stephanie Hanson (below right), the Associate Director of the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations Web site, recently spoke to IJNet about journalism in Kenya.

Stephanie Hanson

IJNet: Despite recent measures, Kenya has established itself as a paragon of free press compared to neighboring countries. Why?

SH: The Kenyan government is quite different from the Sudanese government and the Ethiopian government. In Ethiopia particularly there’s been a lot of legislation passed that has basically restricted freedom of the press. In Sudan, it’s essentially a one-party state so again there’s not a lot of flexibility or law in the books giving the press rights. In Kenya, at least for the past ten to fifteen years the government has functioned with legislation which gives the press relative latitude in comparison to other journalists in the region. And there’s been some interest in Kenya in the past two to three years in rolling back some of those press freedoms but because the journalistic establishment has grown in strength they’ve been able to lobby against any changes going through. You have a situation where the press was given some space to operate and during that time was able to operate and during that time was able to grow strong enough so that now if politicians express interest in rolling back press rights, it becomes more difficult to do so.

A media bill providing the government with censorship powers sailed through parliament in December 2008, and was signed into law by President Mwai Kibaki. Why did the bill garner support and what does the future hold for independent media in Kenya?

I think that the bill got pretty widespread support because there’s fear among many politicians that the press is going to expose political dirty laundry. The press is incredibly active in exposing corruption at all levels of the government and it’s to be expected actually that at this point in time a legislative measure restricting or censoring the press in some way would go through. Having just gone through this incredibly tumultuous period following the 2007 elections parliamentarians are able, at least rhetorically, to make the case that the government needs, for national security or for state stability purposes, to have these powers to censor the press. Of course, this censorship is likely for selfish purposes related to personal concerns about corruption and things like that.

Has the media sided with different ethnic groups in periods of violence or have they remained neutral?

When you say independent media you have to be very careful as to what group you’re talking about. The two major newspapers in Kenya, The Nation and The Standard, are independent. They’re not controlled by the government in any way. They are not beholden to any particular ethnic group. [Siding with ethnic groups] is not acceptable at those institutions.

There’s another contingent of media groups within Kenya which are local media groups, primarily broadcast radio, that are not so sophisticated. These local radio stations are not typically broadcasting in English or Swahili. They are broadcasting in vernacular so they’re already appealing to one specific group, the group that can understand the broadcast. And there’s a lot of evidence that in the time prior to the elections in 2007 these vernacular radio stations were fomenting angry sentiment among their constituents and also saying negative things about other ethnic groups sometimes in a direct way, sometimes using metaphors. There’s a lot of concern among what we consider the mainstream media in Kenya about these vernacular radio stations. And there was a movement after the post-election violence to tone down the rhetoric on these stations. I spoke to some journalists who felt that there has been a decrease in the level of negativity.

In the aftermath of the 2007 elections the government imposed a month-long ban on live TV broadcasts. What impact did this have on the violence that characterized that period?

It’s impossible to say if that month of broadcast would have, for instance, brought an end to the post election violence sooner. It may not have. It’s difficult to say. The Kenyan media is relatively young so the heads of these [media] organizations were actually consulting each other, saying ‘What is the policy that you’re putting into place on this issue? Are you going to name the ethnic group that is conducting violence against other ethnic groups or are you going to say in the broadcast or the story, two members of an ethnic group assaulted two members of another ethnic group? Are you going to say that two people were Kikuyu and two people were Luo?’ These were the discussions that were happening during that time. So now we can look back and say, ‘What if we had had the broadcast for a month? What if they had done the reporting in another way?’ But when these things are unfolding people are making decisions based on the information they have available, based on what they think is the best thing to do for their organization and for the stability of the country. And then you have to ask, ‘What is the responsibility of a journalist or organization in these situations?’ It’s difficult to know. Are they supposed to be impartial reporters of events as they are unfolding or are they supposed to influence events? Very difficult to say, I think.

The 2012 elections are on the horizon and some foresee a resurgence of violence. Can you anticipate the role independent media will play, or the likelihood the government will repress the media?

I think it’s unlikely that there will be a lot of repressive measures taken on the press in the coming years because the media is the most trusted institution in Kenya and the government, I don’t think, has the ability to really crack down on the press without getting enormous pushback both from Kenyans and international groups, the U.S. government among them. So I wouldn’t expect that.

I think the role they’ll play is the same kind of role that robust and relatively sophisticated media would play in any country where an election is coming up. They’re going to provide the general population with a lot of information that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Are they going to influence the outcome of the election?  I think it’s a little early to say. If there’s a huge corruption scandal, it’s possible the media could play a role in the direction the election goes but you never know what the major flashpoints are going to be for this kind of event. I think it’s a little early to say.

In January of this year journalist Francis Nyaruri was killed in Nyanza province where you reported from during your fellowship. Do you think there is any widespread physical threat to independent Kenyan journalists?

I don’t know anything about that particular crime but with the research done on the most dangerous places to work in the trade in the world, I don’t think Kenya is highly ranked on that list. A neighboring country in Somalia is. But Kenya, no, I wouldn’t say that Kenya is a particularly dangerous place to be a journalist, if you’re comparing to other countries.

What are the differences of practicing journalism in Kenya and practicing the trade in the U.S.?

I think the biggest difference is the Kenyan media is still developing. It’s still relatively young and still finding its own voice. And so you see it’s going through some growing pains much like any young industry does. So the kind of standards that we have in the United States and also the diversity of media that we have here are different. [In the U.S.] we have robust national and local newspapers, national and local broadcast television radio; we have privately-funded and publicly-funded media; we have specialty publications. Kenya has the bare bones version of that. There’s one weekly business paper that covers East Africa, The East African Standard. The media universe in Kenya is much smaller. They’re just at a different stage in their development than we are.

To learn more, go to http://www.internationalreportingproject.org/fellows-editors/profile/15/.

Photo of Kenyan radio journalist courtesy of Linda Roth.