In a move that has exposed Kenya’s fragile democracy, the government recently shut down the country’s three biggest TV stations.
This unprecedented, unlawful and panicked response was supposed to ensure that there was no live coverage of the mock swearing in of the National Super Alliance (NASA) opposition leader Raila Odinga as the ‘People’s President’.
The government outlawed the January 30 event and threatened to charge Odinga with treason.
NASA has refused to recognise Uhuru Kenyatta as Kenya’s legitimate president even though he won the repeat presidential election last October. The repeat election was held after the Supreme Court annulled the first poll in August. NASA insists it won the August election and boycotted the repeat poll.
Not since former President Daniel Arap Moi’s tyrannical rule in the 1980s through the 1990s has a government been so brazen in its disregard for the rule of law and as antagonistic to a free press. In fact, recent events are the culmination of a sustained vindictive campaign by Kenyatta against the media in Kenya.
Evolution of repression
In the 1980s Moi’s government routinely jailed journalists and banned publications. With his exit from power this despotic streak abated. But media repression took new forms.
The government began to exert influence through selective advertising, suspect allocation of broadcast frequencies and the co-option of media owners and journalists.
Instances of raw intimidation were extremely rare. One such isolated incident occurred in 2005 when former President Mwai Kibaki’s wife stormed a media house, slapped a TV cameraman, and confiscated note books and tape recorders. She was protesting the perceived negative coverage of the first family.
Kenya boasts a relatively robust media with over 60 TV stations, more than 130 radio stations and several newspaper titles. But, the industry is dominated by three big players; namely the Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services. Successive governments have thus courted the support of these three groups which own NTV, KTN and Citizen, respectively - the three TV stations that were recently shut down by Kenyatta.
Rolling back the gains
Kenyatta’s clampdown on the media in Kenya was not entirely unexpected. Since first becoming president in 2013, his consolidation of political power has been ruthless. He has established a political system in which there is no clear distinction between the Jubilee Party and the state.
The police have been militarised, and alternative centres of political power both within the government and in the opposition are being dismantled.
Like his father Jomo in the 1970s and Moi in the 1980s, Kenyatta is slowly embodying the image of a dictator through a combination of co-opting Kenya’s wealthy economic and political class, and brute force.
Having won the 2013 elections in a controversial victory made possible through the support of a number of smaller political parties, Kenyatta later insisted on their dissolution and the formation of one umbrella party - Jubilee. He then became party leader.
Where he previously had to navigate the interests of various parties to implement his agenda, he can now make unilateral decisions with minimum opposition.
Kenyatta’s media strategy
To further consolidate his power Kenyatta has invested massively in Mediamax, his family’s media company which owns several radio stations, a television station and a national newspaper.
He has also attempted to co-opt sections of the mainstream media. Soon after his inauguration in 2013, he invited some of the country’s top editors and journalists to State House for a “breakfast meeting”. This, he said, was to open a new chapter in “press-state” relations.
But, some sections of the press refused to play ball, and the public turned against what was gradually becoming a pliant media. Soon after that the honeymoon ended and the media clampdown began in earnest. Just one year after becoming president, editors and media managers started getting routine summons to State House.
Kenyatta even had the gumption to warn journalists on World Freedom Day in 2014 that they did not have absolute freedom on what to publish or broadcast. Since then the clampdown has been relentless.
While it claimed this was to curb runaway spending it was clear the decision was aimed at starving the mainstream media of advertising revenue. This move came not long after Denis Galava, a top Kenyan journalist and editor at the Nation Media Group, was sacked for writing a scathing editorial about the President.
More recently the deputy president’s spokesperson threatened a journalist with sacking following a news report that claimed the president and his deputy had disagreed over cabinet appointments.
Meanwhile, just days before Odinga’s “swearing in”, Linus Kaikai, chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild, claimed that a number of editors and media managers were summoned to State House and given a dressing down by the president, threatening to revoke the licences of those who broadcast the event live.
Kaikai and fellow Nation journalists Larry Madowo and Ken Mujungu have since been threatened with arrest. They had to go to court to obtain anticipatory bail to bar police from arresting them.
Free press vital
There are ominous signs that Kenyatta is on a mission to silence the press as he consolidates his power. The government’s decision to disobey the court order directing it to end the media shutdown shows disdain for the law, and press freedom.
Although the mainstream media hasn’t done itself any favours by cosying up to him, it has largely played a vital role in sustaining political accountability.
With both houses of Parliament dominated by the ruling Jubilee Party, a weakened civil society, and opposition leaders without the institutional capacity to meaningfully confront the government, Kenya’s mainstream media remains a bulwark against the country’s descent to authoritarianism.
Kenya’s mainstream media must thus reclaim its place and defend the many liberties currently at stake under Kenyatta’s government.