Privately-owned media denied state advertising revenue

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Kenya’s government to rescind a newly imposed ban on state advertising in the privately-owned media, the latest in a series of restrictive initiatives that could seriously weaken media independence and jeopardise the right to information in the run-up to general elections in August.

It was the privately-owned Daily Nation newspaper that revealed this week that chief of defence forces Samson Mwathethe and cabinet secretary for public service Sicily Kariuki had issued a directive forbidding all governmental entities from placing ads in the privately-owned media.

The directive even applies to positions vacant and invitations to bid, which state agencies will henceforth only be able to publish in the state media. Unions representing the independent media estimate that the ban will result in a loss of 20 million dollars in income for the privately-owned media, or about a third of their revenue.

The grounds given by the government for throttling the independent media financially in the run-up to the elections is the need for savings.

“We call on the government to rescind this directive, which will considerably weaken all the Kenyan media,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “With general elections coming in August, this new measure could rightly be seen as a deliberate attempt by the government to restrict independent media voices.”

Journalists prevented from working

The directive is all the more disturbing because it follows many other developments that have limited media freedom in Kenya.

In a joint letter a month ago, RSF and other human rights NGOs condemned the expulsion of Jerome Starkey, a British reporter for The Times of London who had been based in Kenya for four years. The authorities ended up claiming that Starkey’s deportation in December was the result of his work visa renewal being refused, although he had not been notified of this.

The editor of the Daily Nation’s weekend edition was fired after publishing an editorial on 1 January criticizing the results of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration.

One of the gravest cases is the still unsolved murder in April 2015 of John Kituyi, the editor of the regional Mirror Weekly newspaper, who had been investigating the intimidation of witnesses in the International Criminal Court case against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto.

There have been several cases in recent months of police harassing reporters. They include K24 television reporter Duncan Wanga, who was arrested for no good reason while covering a demonstration in the western city of Eldoret on 27 September. His camera was also smashed.

Yassin Juma, a journalist and blogger who covers military issues, was arrested on 23 January 2016 for allegedly violating article 29 of Information and Communication Act in a story about Kenya’s defence forces. Article 29 was declared unconstitutional the following April on the grounds that it was too vague.

The climate of impunity encourages members of the public to attack journalists. At least five journalists were physically attacked by local elected officials or groups of supporters while out reporting in July and August last year. The media regulatory agency condemned these attacks and urged the police to investigate them.

The Daily Nation – one of Kenya’s most popular newspapers and owned by the Aga Khan group – was harassed by the government in February 2016, with the result that its management fired Godfrey “Gado” Mwampembwa, a cartoonist who had worked for the newspaper for more than 20 years, over a cartoon of former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. Gado had embodied the outspoken style used by Kenya’s media.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s legislation has been getting more and more restrictive. The public security laws have been amended so as reinforce the prerogatives of the National Intelligence Service.

More recently, a bill on Internet security and protection unveiled in September targeted online freedom of information in the name of combatting hate speech. The bill’s loose wording could be used to gag journalists and bloggers regarded as overly critical of the government.

Kenya is ranked 95th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 02.03.2017