No love lost: State and media wars escalate as press freedom suffers

Journalists from Nyamira and Kisii Counties match along Magombo-Keroka road while marking World Press Freedom Day on 3/5/2023. [Sammy Omingo,Standard]

Will the government achieve its objective of controlling Kenya’s vibrant independent media by denying it advertising revenue and again how will this impact Kenyan journalism?

Numerous past attempts have been made to muzzle the media, especially mass circulation newspapers including when the Kanu government clamped down the Nairobi Times in the mid 1980s by denying the publication, adverts.

Those attempts however fell with a thud because after emasculating the Times and then buying from its owner Hillary Ngweno for a song, its replacement Kanu owned Kenya Times became a pale shadow of self and died.

Speaking not only as someone who has been around and seen it all, but also as a journalist and a teacher of media studies, Dr Barrack Muluka thinks the government got it wrong when it denied some media houses advertisement.

“It is a waste of time, because they will not meet the objective of controlling the media. They have got it completely wrong. Instead of the government confronting and haunting the media, they should be seeking to engage, understand each better and find a middle ground,” says Muluka.

He maintains that it is a waste of time because the public is now intelligent especially because they have access to the social media where they can easily get what the government wants to suppress long before it gets into the mainstream media.

He further expostulates that by favouring one newspaper or media house against others, the government will interfere with the editorial independence of such publications and stations because they have to toe the line for them to sustain that advertisng.

“The spinoff is that such a newspaper will likely lose credence in the eyes of the reading public, which may only be interested in it when there are adverts for jobs or tenders,” says Muluka.

Among those that could suffer is KBC where he cut his teeth. He fears it will be more discredited and even the little editorial independence it has recently gained, is likely to be comprised.

He however foresees the free media holding its space and surviving despite the adversity it faces although individual journalists will become casualties through downsizing and retrenchment.

“Despite the challenges, they will survive because the private advertising sector needs to reach the widest possible number of readers and so it will travel with the rest of the media that has been secluded,” adds Muluka.

The other downside is students going to schools of journalism and colleges may not find it useful to pursue those courses in a professional environment being emasculated by the government.

The widespread feeling among media professionals however is that the existence of free media is now under an existential threat under the Kenya Kwanza regime led by President William Ruto. It is argued that because government represents the greatest source of revenue, it wants to wield influence and quietly control what is published and what is not.

It is that kind of back-door soft censorship, that Executive Director Amnesty International Irungu Houghton was referring to while debating threats by national and county governments to stop adverts in papers critical about them.

“If you are reliant on the government for your adverts, one of the concerns for media editors is whether a headline will necessarily have them removed from your newspapers. I look forward to a time when the press is more secure and less fearful about reporting,” says Houghton.

Previous attempts to deny independent media houses advertisement include one by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration in February 2017.    

The government banned state advertising, including tenders and job applications, in commercial media, saying it wanted to save money.

In an official memo from the Head of Civil Service, accounting officers were warned that they would be forced to pay from their pockets any ads placed in private media.

And to enforce the order, all ministries, departments and agencies were instructed to advertise through a new government-owned magazine My.Gov then circulated in two privately-owned newspapers The Star and Uhuru’s People Daily at a fee.

In a memo stamped ‘secret’ to all state agencies, President Kenyatta’s chief of staff and head of civil service Joseph Kinyua argued that the government would have saved about Sh2,640,000,000 it was spending on advertising.

Kinyua said the new free circulating magazine would have in addition to championing the government agenda and adverts, carry articles of government programmes and opportunities for the youth and vulnerable groups, which was allegedly not being carried by commercial media.

Before the last presidential elections, the Kenya Kwanza claimed without providing proof that the media was favouring Raila Odinga’s Azimio side in its campaign coverage.

So why should the government be so keen to starve the media of advertising revenue at a time when the economy is receding? Media experts think freezing of advertising means the mainstream media will not actualise their budgets, which creates a cash flow crisis and inevitably weaken newsrooms operations across the board.

The result is the government and its advisors expect media outlets will become vulnerable to state manipulation thus exposing owners to financial distress and forcing them to cooperate with the government.

Since Kenya Kwanza took over in August 2022, the media has faced advertising blackmail to physical threats, with some journalists getting attacked by police officers.

Prof George Ogolla says critical media were and are now regularly “punished” through withdrawal of government advertising.

“In the run-up to the August 2022 elections, one of President Ruto’s senior policy men warned the media that they were best advised to look for advertising elsewhere as it would not be business as usual with state advertising,” says Ogolla.

He adds that political threats have become part of a systemic media repression brazenly enforced by forces within the senior ranks of government. Leaders who have threatened media include Senate Leader of Majority Aaron Cheruiyot who last year described the media as a cartel which needed to be crushed, sentiments shared by his National Assembly counterpart Kimani Ichung’wah.

In February, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) moved to court to challenge the government’s decision not to run its adverts in three national newspapers.
The government has instructed state agencies not to advertise in the newspapers a move some seen as a bid to monopolise information after the Kenya Kwanza decided to deny The Standard Group PLC (SG), Nation Media Group (NMG) and People Daily a contract to run My.Gov pull-out.

LSK argued the government is not only denying Kenyans access to crucial information on jobs and government tenders, but it is also stifling their participation in decisions that require scrutiny. 

LSK lawyer Peter Wanjiku told High Court judge Chacha Mwita that access to government information is a right ratified by regulation requiring that the government pass information through newspapers with countrywide reach.

Three years ago, the Council of Governors also threatened to withdraw advertising from one media house over a graft report it had published.

The story headlined ‘Eight governors on graft hit list’ – highlighted how the EACC was probing abuse of office and corruption allegations against various county chiefs.

Then CoG chair Wycliffe Oparanya termed the piece a “smear campaign” that portrayed them as corrupt, inept and unable to run their counties.