NAIROBI - The concept of a free press is relatively new in Kenya, East Africa's most populous democracy. Until 1998 the press was heavily controlled by the government. It gradually gained its freedom and found its voice. However, the 2008 revision of an earlier law is worrisome to media professionals, as they continue to hope that their role will be held in higher regard, that they will be seen as an agent of change in Kenyan society, as holding the government accountable for its actions, and as leading the fight against corruption.
I gained a first-hand view of a Kenyan television operation working as a business reporter with K24-TV from January to March 2009.
“Media has advanced greatly over the years,” said Rose Kimotho, managing director of Regional Reach Media, the parent company of Kameme FM and newly–launched K24-TV, an all-news station, both in Nairobi, the capital. As people grasped the phenomenon of press freedom in Kenya, she said, several changes have allowed for more objective journalism geared toward a Kenyan audience.
According to Kimotho, when Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, the vast majority of programming on the government-owned radio and television stations was British and American. Until 1992, Kenyans had access to only one state-owned and -operated channel, KBC, Kenya Broadcasting Corp. Presently, more outlets broadcast in Swahili and Kenyan languages and address their reports directly to Kenyans.
Nevertheless, Kimotho went on, since independence the relationship between Kenyan media and government has been tense, mainly because of policy regulations and a general societal fear of the government.
“The media played a crucial role in agitating for a change to the Constitution to allow for multi-party democracy in early 1990," said Kimotho. “It played a role in educating the public on democratic and human rights.”
From 1988 to 1991, when there was a struggle for multi-party democracy in the country, journalists were routinely arrested, detained without trial, maimed and murdered. However, Kimotho said, “Harassment of journalists is now largely a thing of the past.”
Likewise, while I was in the country, Kenyan journalists often challenged the government to arrest and prosecute the people responsible for the violence following the 2007 election that left over 1300 people dead and chased many more out of their homes.
The press did not shy away from confronting the government. The media boldly asked questions and aired opinions on why the perpetrators should be brought to justice— because many victims and witnesses knew who they were, but weren’t willing to blow the whistle—and how they should be prosecuted—either by forming a special tribunal within the country or sending them to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
In this instance, the media’s role was to keep all sides of the debate in parliament visible to residents while simultaneously urging the government to justly prosecute the wrong-doers. Kenyan media competently filled the role and informed residents so that they could actively participate in the conversation.
The general consensus among media professionals in Kenya is that the industry has matured and advanced since Independence, reflective of press freedom, advanced media training and the worldwide technology boom.
“Compared to previous years, much has changed, from broadcast and print media technology,” said Violet Otindo, a producer and reporter for K24-TV. “We’ve come a long way in terms of equipment, accessibility to Internet, to advanced knowledge by media practitioners, as well as licensing of many stations.”
Changes in media laws in the early '90s enabled more independent media organizations to spring up, including Kimotho’s eight-year-old Kameme FM and now K24-TV, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in December 2008.
The most recent data posted on the Communications Commission of Kenya Web site states that as of September 2005, 89 television frequencies and 244 FM radio frequencies were assigned.
Over the years there has also been a higher interest in journalism as a career and a sense of “upping the journalistic ante" among competitors. Otindo, who’s among the growing population of young journalists in Kenya, observed, “talent was a major factor before you could join any media organization. But now there are many media colleges and universities that have seen many trained journalists join the field—hence the focus on a higher quality of professionalism in journalism.”
Still, many media professionals in Kenya say although the 21st-century press model is much more liberal, the country has a long way to go before citizens feel fully comfortable to air their opinions and media personnel are not controlled by government officials with a vested interest in their output.
“Information is still not freely accessible for both the public and government for fear of victimization of the informants. Journalists and media houses as well live in fear, especially with the recent media law,” said Otindo.
The Kenya Communications Amendment Bill 2008 caused a great deal of controversy among media outlets. Enacted in late 2008 to amend the Kenya Communications Act 1998, the bill was drafted primarily to regulate the growth and usage of communications technology, including mobile telephones, Internet and satellites.
Causing an uproar and mixed views among broadcasters, section 46 of the newly amended law allows the government-appointed Communications Commission of Kenya “the power to set standards for the manner, time and type of programs to be broadcast.”
“The new media law does not promote free press. It was based on the conservativeness of Kenyans that continuously limits us to express ourselves in the best way possible,” said Kelvin Saito, a producer at K24-TV.
Kimotho concurred that the law is a potential threat to free, objective journalism, stating that “the law grants the minister in charge excessive powers that could be abused.”
Judging by conversations with journalists, reports aired on Kenyan radio and television, and opinion articles in Kenyan newspapers, some media practitioners in the country apparently see the new bill as a roadblock, yet another way for the government to gain back control of the media.
“It still ties our hands on what should and should not be aired as the government deems right,” said Otindo. “However it should be reworked to allow for a different body to make sure wrong information either given for monetary benefits or along tribal lines does not infiltrate the audience and bring a situation like the recent post election violence.”
Others, however, say internal controls regulate the media more so than the government. “Professional ethics are what carry the media through here,” said Kenneth Mijungu, a reporter at K24-TV who studied law before joining the station in late 2007.
“Media in Kenya cannot be said to be either free or suppressed. Media houses operate on the company policy, but they’ve historically gone overboard by internally censoring content.”
Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga, a former East African journalist and current candidate for a master's degree in media studies at DePaul University in Chicago, agrees.
“During the one-party period dominated by just two presidents, the now deceased Jomo Kenyatta and retired Daniel Arap Moi from 1964 to 2002, there was outright media repression,” he said. “Journalists were often arrested or harassed. This further caused self-censorship to affect what newspapers and broadcast media could report.”
Many Kenyan journalists say the media play a crucial role in society. Noting how the Kenyan media actively assumed the watchdog role when reporting on the non-prosecution of the post-election violence perpetrators, journalists in the country say that should be a standard practice.
“In Africa, the media has a role that should go beyond the traditional ‘watchman role’ on behalf of society, as in the West,” explained Kimotho. “ In addition to reporting on the excesses of those in power and calling for good governance, media in Africa should also play an educational role in critical areas such as health, for example primary healthcare and HIV; agriculture, dealing with more productive farming methods and the preservation of culture; and the advancements in technology, among other relevant topics.”
Saito said, “The media has a big role in transforming our country since we have the power to write and air what we feel is important, give a voice to the unvoiced and thoroughly investigate to seek the truth and report it.”
Some people feel that it’s the media's duty to lead the fight against corruption, but unfortunately, “Industry-wide, rampant corruption has a debilitating effect on good journalists,” said Lasaga. “It affects morale, so the best journalists often quit.” This is why Lasaga says Kenyan journalists may have to work extra hard to produce objective free journalism in a corruption-ridden country.
Although there are numerous drawbacks in Kenyan media, practitioners in the country say they see a bright future for the industry. Kimotho believes that despite tighter control authorized by the new media law, “Gains made in press freedom will not be reversed.”
As the focus shifts more on local media and more independent media companies spring up, she said, “there will be a greater growth in regional media versus national media.”
“The future is big for media in Kenya, but our biggest hindrances are the people in power,” added Saito, “but I believe we will always find a way out.”
The future could bring dramatic changes in Kenyan media. But there’s no doubt that it would take some form of cooperation or peaceful coexistence among the government and the industry to operate a totally free, objective press.