Press freedom: The new threat to media in Kenya

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 00:00 |
Media personnel at work. Photo/Courtesy

Abraham Mariita

“If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Said the 26th American President, Theodore Roosevelt. It is sad that capitalist cronies have literary used this words to take control of the media in Kenya. 

The media industry is controlled by a network of State and private entities, under a state capture, which is defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit.

On Sunday we marked the World Press Freedom Day against the backdrop of the fact that the current threat to media freedom in Kenya is not just upsurge in harassment and attacks on journalists perpetrated by security agencies, but also ownership and control of advertisement revenue by the State. 

Growing up, I remember the first thing we viewed on our small, black-and-white television, on the only public broadcaster, was the image of then President.

I grew up believing the President was the only newsmaker—it was all about where he went, what he said or even what he ate. Everything else was secondary. 

As participatory democracy grew and airways liberalised, more television and radio stations came up, unleashing new realities and opinions. Freedom was nigh. 

While we were busy enjoying watching a sprout of local productions, crafty businessmen and greedy politicians went on a purge on free radio frequencies.

Everything was stolen, including frequencies set aside for public broadcasting. Those in power were awarded licenses without following proper procedure.

By 2019, there were 127 TV and 194 radio stations in Kenya, according to the latest Kenya Economic Survey.

Most of these stations are owned or run by politicians or their kin, ready to be used as propaganda or election campaign tools.

This gave birth to the formation of a new battle ground for politicians. Political divisions would be visible on either side of media stations, carrying or interpreting headline stories differently, depending on who is being favoured. 

Some radio stations were accused of spreading hate speech and incitement to violence during the hotly contested 2007 elections.

A spotlight was then beamed on the media, and a myriad of activities took place trying to control the sector, including laws regulating free speech. 

Since 2013, new control of media, which human rights organisation, Article 19, refers to as Soft Censorship, has been gaining traction.

In this type of censorship, government being the biggest advertiser, applies indirect financial pressure on media organisations, by giving or denying ad revenue to the media that give (or deny) favourable coverage to the State and public affairs. 

In 2015, the control got worse. The Government Advertising Agency was established, publicly fashioned as a body that will take charge of consolidating procurement and payment functions of all government advertisement requirements, seemingly to rationalizse and manage advertising expenditure.

But it later turned out to be a silent beast, awarding “loyal” media houses with advertisement.

Disparity grew among the debt owed to media houses, with suspicion that government leveraged advertisement to influence editorial policy.   

This is the new battle for free press in Kenya; professional journalists toiling to investigate crime and corruption in private or public sector, versus dwindling advertisement revenue, threatening to bring down newsrooms.

Media houses are held ransom by their own government and private conglomerates.   

The situation has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. Media houses have reported losses in revenue, and journalists have had their pay reduced, all while standing on the frontlines to continue exercising their watchdog role.

Journalists are also battling hate and disinformation to help deliver accurate news to citizens on the virus. 

A government that truly works for the best interest of its citizens, will support the growth of media by supporting its existence by promoting a competitive business environment. 

It is not too much to ask, for an environment that respects the journalism profession. Let’s all defend media freedom. —The writer is a Communications and Civic Engagement Officer at Transparency International Kenya

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