The year since Kenyan president’s election marked by new hostility towards media
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the decline in press freedom in Kenya in the year since William Ruto’s election as president, with an increase in police attacks on reporters during protests and overt government hostility towards the media. As well as protecting journalists, the authorities must also shed light on a Pakistani journalist’s death in Kenya nine months ago, RSF says.
No one will forget the undisguised hostility that a senior government official expressed towards the media in June. In a series of tweets on 19 June, Investments, Trade and Industry Secretary Moses Kuria referred to journalists working for the Nation Media Group (NMG), Kenya’s biggest independent media group, as “prostitutes” and accused them of being corrupt and biased.
In an angry speech the previous day, Kuria had threatened to fire any government officials providing the NMG with advertising. His tirade was triggered by an investigative report by the NMG-owned TV channel NTV about corruption within his ministry. Kuria has neither apologised for his comments nor has he been sanctioned for them.
The episode is emblematic of the difficulties that the media have encountered during the year since Ruto's election. Harassed by this minister and by other politicians, journalists also have been subjected to a surge in arbitrary arrests and attacks during demonstrations, with the attacks coming from both police and protesters.
Kenya was an exception in East Africa, where the media are routinely attacked and journalists are arrested on spurious charges, but the situation has declined in Kenya in the year since William Ruto's election. Journalists have become one of the prime targets of the police, especially during protests, and have been subjected to frequent attacks by politicians on all sides. As he approaches his second year in office, RSF calls on President Ruto and his government to establish a mechanism for protecting journalists and to shed light on the circumstances of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif’s death.
Ruto’s victory in the election held on 9 August 2022 began a troubled time for the media. Senior executives at major media groups such as the Nation Media Group and media outlets such as the Daily Nation were fired as a result of political pressure within months of his taking office on 13 September. A member of Ruto’s inner circle had already signalled a change at the end of July 2022, warning that state advertising would not function as previously and that there would be less of it for the media if Ruto were elected.
Cases of violence and abusive treatment of journalists have surged, especially since the start of 2023. In March, more than 20 journalists were arrested or injured during a first wave of protests, with more than half of the injuries being inflicted by the security forces.
On 30 March, a plainclothes police officer threw a teargas canister into a media vehicle, injuring two journalists, one of whom was hit in the face by the canister. The journalist, who does not want to be named, spent a week in hospital and has had problems with his vision ever since. He was followed by unidentified persons after leaving hospital and is now in hiding. When asked about this wave of violence, the Inspector General of Police said such attacks were “occupational hazards” for the media.
Journalists were subjected to further abuses during a new wave of protests in mid-July. Isaiah Gwengi, a reporter for The Standard daily newspaper, was beaten by police and then arrested in the western district of Bondo on 7 July. On the same day, Reuters photographer James Keyi was beaten by a group of ten people in the western city of Kisumu.
Keyi, who had already been attacked by demonstrators in March, told RSF: “My friends have said I should give up this job but I have no intention of doing so.” On the latest attack, he said: “I couldn't tell if it was police or thugs. But the way they treated me left no doubt that this was an organised group. These are people who know exactly what they are doing.”
Worse still, some police practices and methods explicitly target journalists in the field. A new special police unit – called the Operation Support Unit – was created in March 2023 with the task of silencing criticism during protests and reining in “nosy” journalists. This unit, whose members never wear a uniform in the field, crossed a threshold on 9 July when one of its plainclothes operatives posed as a photojournalist in order to arrest a protester. Such abusive methods jeopardise the already compromised safety of journalists in the field and fuel mistrust of the media.
Ruto’s presidency has also been marked by the fatal shooting on 23 October of Arshad Sharif, a news anchor on Pakistan’s ARY News TV channel who had fled to Kenya to escape persecution. The investigation remains stalled nine months later.
Kenya fell from 69th to 116th in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index, the third biggest fall in this year’s Index.