Ten years after appalling election violence was accompanied by serious media freedom violations in Kenya in 2007, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been looking at the current election campaign’s impact on press freedom.

Kenyans are due to elect a parliament and president on 8 August. This should be a routine step in a democratic nation’s life but previous elections have given rise to both grave abuses against journalists and serious loss of life – hence the concern of RSF and the international community.

RSF has registered many violations of free speech and the right to inform in Kenya since President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election in 2013 and they have been increasing in the run-up to next month’s elections, in which Kenyatta is seeking another term.

At the same time, the authorities have developed an extensive information control system, applying new regulatory measures to both the traditional media and social networks. As a result, the scope for producing and disseminating news and information freely has declined considerably in recent months.

The media nonetheless have a key role to play in democratic and pluralist elections. And they must be free and independent, so that the public has adequate access to information about the political parties, their programmes and the way the polling is conducted.

Journalists targeted

Physical attacks on journalists by the security forces, intimidation and open threats against journalists by politicians, seizure of journalists’ equipment and the suppression of media content are all typical features of election campaigns in Kenya.

And this year is no exception. Since the start of 2017, there have been at least five cases of violence against a total of eight journalists by public figures or their bodyguards after the journalists raised sensitive political issues.

Journalists sometimes pay dearly for covering election-related events, especially those organized by the opposition, or for negative portrayals of President Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and its flaws.

Walter Menya, a reporter for the Nation Media Group’s Nation newspaper, was arrested on 18 June. His arrest came after he wrote stories implicating senior officials in the use of a foundation to provide Kenyatta’s reelection campaign with illegal funding.

National Media Group reporter Winnie Atieno was covering the opposition Orange Democratic Party’s primaries on 22 April, when police grabbed her phone and deleted all the photos she had taken at a voting station.

Political corruption and misgovernance, especially by the governors of Kenya’s 47 counties, also seem to be off-limits for reporters in the run-up to the elections.

Royal Media group reporter Emmanuel Namisi sustained a serious head injury when he was attacked and badly beaten by Bungoma County governor Ken Lusaka’s bodyguards in a restaurant in Bungoma on 5 June, after he accused the governor of corruption in his radio reporting. They said he had damaged the governor’s image and were angered by his report on Radio Citizen and Mulembe FM blaming them for a woman’s death during a demonstration in Bungoma three days before.

It was Kakamega County governor Wyclife Oparanya’s bodyguards who gave Standard newspaper journalist Dan Ocholla a severe beating on 7 May when he photographed workers injured by the collapse of a building under construction in Kakamega. His assailants tried to confiscate his phone and camera.

Three journalists working for the Mediamax group – Sarah Ndungu and Charles Mathai of People Daily and K24 TV cameraman Patrick Kimanthi – were badly injured by demonstrators while covering a visit by Nairobi governor Evans Kidero to Nairobi’s Dandora district to resolve a land dispute.

All of these abuses have gone unpunished and, in most cases, no investigation was even opened although the journalists filed complaints. Impunity is a chronic problem, as RSF noted after regional newspaper editor John Kituy’s murder in April 2016 while investigating the intimidation of witnesses in the International Criminal Court case against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto.

“We call on the Kenyan authorities to end this persecution of journalists and we remind them that the provision of news and information is essential during an election campaign, RSF said. Unpunished attacks of this kind have just one aim – to deter journalists from tackling certain political issues out of fear of reprisals.”

Criticism of the media

Ever since the December 2007 elections and the ensuing bloody clashes, the authorities have mistrusted the media, accusing them of fuelling hatred and violence and thereby being ultimately to blame for the violence. At a result, they have been tempted to gag the media although the freedom to inform is enshrined in the 2010 constitution.

At the start of 2017, the authorities issued a series of directives to the media on how to cover the elections. Francis Wangusi, the head of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK), announced on 7 March that, in order to “avoid violence,” the media were banned outright from announcing the election results. “We are not going to allow these platforms to be used by people the way they want to,” Wangusi said.

This announcement was preceded by a 28 February directive requiring journalist to keep all their notes and recordings for six months and to ensure that guests on radio and TV programmes measure their words and do not incite hatred on the air. The journalists would be held responsible, the directive said.

RSF condemns these pre-election directives inspired by mistrust of the media. Banning the media from covering certain subjects or forcing them to follow certain rules in their coverage constitutes a violation of media freedom. Measures of this kind aim to intimidate journalists and force them to censor themselves.

More Internet surveillance

The authorities have often called for regulation of social networks, publicly accusing journalists, bloggers and others of using them to disseminate hate messages. Although the stated aim is to reduce violent content on social networks, such measures have a concrete and very restrictive impact on freedom of expression.

In June, the CAK and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) finally issued “guidelines” designed to control and restrict comments on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter during the elections.

They provide for fines of up to 7,700 euros and five-year jail sentences for hate speech and incitement to violence. They could also force political bloggers and citizen-journalists to reveal their political leanings and could even impose a pre-publication review and approval system for posts of a political nature.

In the past year, Kenya has also developed a technological capacity to monitor mobile phone communications and content on security grounds, reportedly investing 400 million shillings (3.4 million euros) in this in 2016.

In February, the government gave itself the authority to monitor mobile phone calls, SMS text messages and mobile money transactions without getting a warrant from a judge.

RSF firmly condemns this measure, especially as Kenya has no data protection law. It opens the door to mass surveillance of Kenyan citizens and leaves Kenyan journalists very vulnerable, because there is no protection for the confidentiality of their sources.

Net closing on independent media

A ban on state advertising in the privately-owned media took effect in March, effectively depriving them of a major part of their revenue. RSF condemned this decision at the time, regarding it as a major blow to media pluralism just five months ahead of the elections.

The state media are also no longer completely free of government pressure. According to the information gathered by RSF, journalists with the Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation, a state-owned entity broadcasting in English and Swahili, are being forced to give less airtime to the ruling Jubilee party’s rivals and to portray their activities in a systematically negative light.

Out of fear of management reprisals, KBC’s journalists are therefore being forced to censor themselves. This is a disturbing step backwards for the KBC, which was given new management in 2002 and had become more objective in its news coverage.

Kenya is ranked 95th out of 180 countries in RSF 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Published on
Updated on 08.07.2017