In Peril: State pressure, economic coercion strain Kenya's media industry

Journalists march along Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru town to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2018. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

In recent times, the media’s role as the fourth estate, wielding its watchdog function to scrutinise government actions, has encountered a mounting challenge from government officials, posing a potential threat to its credibility.

This development can gradually erode the media’s standing, creating an environment ripe for the proliferation of misinformation, propaganda and the potential to erode democratic values.

In what seems like a calculated blow to the struggling independent print media, the government has recently taken an unprecedented step by directing all its agencies and ministries not to place advertisements in independent print publications for the next two years.

The directive, issued by Information and Communication Technology Principal Secretary Edward Kisiangani on January 23, 2024, prohibits the placement of government advertisements in the country’s oldest and widely circulating dailies, with the exception of only one publication, The Star.

This decision has far-reaching implications, particularly for readers of prominent newspapers such as The Standard, Daily Nation, and The People Daily. As a result of the directive, these readers will be deprived of access to government advertisements related to jobs, tenders, and other critical announcements, including appointments and statutory notices.

“They are illegally weaponising government advertising. It is illegal because the existence of Government Advertising Agency (GAA) is not anchored in any law and goes against the principles establishing the Public Finance Management Act,” says the Standard Group Editor-in-Chief Ochieng’ Rapuro.

He accused the government of manipulating the allocation process to punish media outlets that publish critical content, thereby compromising media independence.

“We, The Standard, were kicked out of MyGov twice because of hard-hitting headlines we did. So, when it comes to a point where the government wants to control the message we are disseminating especially if you hold them accountable, then they withdraw the advertising.”

In addition to the arm-twisting, Rapuro adds that the government deliberately withholds payments for advertising services all in a bid to make media businesses financially unsustainable. The Editor-in-Chief estimated that the government owes The Standard around Sh700 million, creating a challenging situation exacerbated by tax pressures from the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Eric Oduor, the Secretary-General of the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ), supported Rapuro’s concerns, talking of additional legislative threats to press freedom. Oduor cited instances where laws and regulations, such as the Kenya Films Classification Board’s decisions on watershed hours, have been used to interfere with the content carried by broadcast media.

He criticised the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act of 2018, which criminalises the spreading of false information. Oduor argues that the vague nature of determining what constitutes false information under this law poses a serious threat to journalistic freedom.

“Right now, defamation has been decriminalised but how it’s being applied at the moment, it is like they are criminalising the work of the journalists considering the high fines awarded by the courts. If it remains the way it is, journalist have restrictions from that law,” Oduor adds.

“If you write something they don’t like, you can be arrested under this law. That is just to send fear among journalists and media houses to self-censure again in order to avoid the misuse of this law against the journalist,” says Rapuro.

Both Rapuro and Oduor agree that these actions collectively indicate a disturbing trend of the Kenyan government attempting to curtail media freedom, potentially leading to a return to a pre-multiparty era where the government’s word held absolute sway, risking the rise of a dictatorship and an increase in corruption.

A former associate editor of the Daily Nation and an independent editor, Eric Shimoli concurs with Rapuro, explaining how financial pressures forced compromises, blurring the once-sacred line between editorial independence and commercial interests. Shimoli highlighted instances where government advertisement revenue became a tool for control, influencing editorial content and compromising journalistic integrity.

“Sales representatives became beggars. To get advertisements, a lot of compromises have had to be made. Even editors were made to go and kneel before governors and junior county officials to get government advertisement,” says Shimoli.

As the media’s objectives often conflict with the actions of the political elite, numerous politicians and government officials have targeted the media, undermining its credibility. For instance, earlier this year, Azimio leader Raila Odinga advocated for the boycott of The Star newspaper.

In the current regime, Public Service Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria went on the onslaught this year where on one occasion, he alleged that the Nation Media Group had assumed the role of the opposition party. He also threatened to sack any public officer advertising on the media house’s platforms.

“Decide whether you are a publishing and broadcasting house or an opposition party. I have said from today, all government agencies that I see have placed advertisements in the Nation Media Group, count yourself to be going home,” threatened the CS.

While Kuria felt the heat from a pushback from the media fraternity, including the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua defended the CS, arguing that the media should also be held to account.

“You have seen nothing. We want to ask leaders in this country to join Moses Kuria to hold the press to account. They must be accountable for what they write and what they say,” said the Deputy President.

He also charged at the media claiming that it had abandoned its watchdog role and before the elections, it had taken sides with the Uhuru Kenyatta regime, the Opposition, the system and the deep state. He alleged that coffee, milk and tea cartels had paid the media to tarnish his image and that of the Ruto government.

“In the run-up to the general elections in 2022, you joined Azimio to run a campaign against President William Ruto. You carried fake opinion polls showing that Raila Odinga will win the elections. The people of Kenya are ashamed of you. You ran fake narratives daily that William Ruto is not electable,” he added.

Gachagua’s spokesperson Njeri Rugene, however, says the DP is widely misunderstood and his pushback on the media is founded on what he finds to be “unethical journalism”.

“The DP respects the independence of the media but what he has scoffed at is unethical behaviour from journalists. He stands for the truth and does not fear speaking out against anything that he sees is wrong but some people take things out of context,” she says.

The World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) revealed a deterioration of media freedom in the country placing Kenya at position 116 in 2023, a drop from position 69 in 2022.

“William Ruto’s election as president in August 2022 marked the start of a difficult period for the media, with the heads of major press groups, including the Nation Media Group, and leading media outlets, such as the Daily Nation, being fired as a result of political pressure,” reads the report.

Peter Kimani, a Professor of the Practice of Journalism at Aga Khan University, explains how intimidation tactics by the State have stifled journalists’ freedom to express critical opinions, creating an atmosphere of apprehension among media personnel.

A former editor at The Standard newspaper and current columnist, Kimani articulated concerns regarding the government’s tactics to undermine the credibility of mainstream media. He drew parallels between the current administration’s strategy and former US President Donald Trump’s approach to discrediting the media, noting that the constant false accusations of bias aim to weaken public trust in reputable news outlets.

“This administration came in on a false assertion that the media was prejudiced against Kenya Kwanza politicians,” says Prof Kimani.

According to Kimani, the continued attack on media owners and practitioners potentially leads to the peril of self-censorship among journalists, citing instances where the fear of reprisal led to the suppression of genuine reporting, particularly during this year’s anti-government protests.

He explains that coverage of the protests was construed by the state as being anti-government.

During the 2023 demonstrations, the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) through a press statement criticised six TV stations, threatening to revoke their licenses. The Authority claimed that the national broadcasters had violated coverage codes and that coverage of the protest was a form of public incitement.

“We lose our ability to articulate our thoughts because we are afraid of stating the case as clearly as possible. Not to mention the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting denial of advertisement and revenues by the government,” says Kimani.

There have also been manoeuvres to penetrate the media are also evolving, creating a growing interconnection between the media and governmental roles.

This year witnessed a substantial influx of journalists transitioning to various government positions, notably within State House, Parliament and Cabinet Secretaries’ offices. She argues that this shift is likely to pave the way for government influence to seep into newsrooms.

“This administration believes that the best communicators are journalists from the newsroom but not because they are the best in the newsroom but because they can penetrate and get to know what is happening before they are published,” she says.

Roselyn Obala, the Planning and Research Editor at the Nation Media Group, highlights the alarming rise in harassment and attacks against journalists.

She recalled how while leaving the newsroom and heading to the parking lot in the office basement, she received a harrowing call from a politician. He accused her of killing a particular story and warned he was aware of her current location in the parking lot, preparing to drive away.

“If somebody says that to you, what do you do? You just start having anxiety attacks. You don’t drive home and want to use different routes every day and every time I leave, I’m wondering who is following me,” says Obala.