By Victor Bwire
The media in Kenya has had a lot to contend with in the run-up to the August 8th elections. Journalists have been threatened and physically attacked, they have been targeted and harassed by trolls, editorial content has been sacrificed to political advertising, and the influence of social media is on the rise.
All this is taking place in an environment in which there is heightened suspicion of the media, fuelled by a fear that they might be used to incite violence or tilt the political landscape to favour specific interests. As a result both the media and politicians have been tasked to become more vigilant to guard against all forms of hate speech, bias and corruption.
Pressure on journalists in Kenya started to build during the political party primaries in April and May this year. Within that period, at least three journalists were physically abused and a number of others received threats. In response, journalists in the western Kenyan town of Kakamega held a peaceful demonstration to defend their rights and to call attention to their plight.
As the media made a public stand against violence, government agencies were also on the alert. The Media Council of Kenya released election reporting guidelines and a training manual that were signed off by a large number of media houses. Separately, a multi-agency forum that included the police, the national Cohesion and Integration Commission, the Director of Public Prosecution, the Communications Authority of Kenya, the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission was formed. Part of its mandate was to monitor media content for hate speech and to equip journalists to guard against language that could incite violence. To achieve this, it issued weekly reminders and warnings to the media on its coverage of the pre-election process where it deemed the reportage as misleading or dangerous.
This effort, though well intentioned, was not received with open arms by all involved. A number of journalists and bloggers, who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch for its May 2017 report on the elections, expressed concern that government officials’ claim that the media was being used to spread hate speech was merely a pretext to crack down on free expression.
Despite this apprehension, regulators persisted with their engagements with the media, which were largely receptive to the training programmes, dialogues and advisories availed to them.
The rising influence of political advertising
While significant attention was paid to external threats to the media in the run-up to the elections, few could have anticipated how much influence the money of electioneering would have on internal editorial controls in newsrooms across the country.
Media owners, election candidates and interest groups placed great pressure on journalists to censor their news by threatening the loss of millions of shillings in political advertising. In some cases, election campaign adverts were so ubiquitous that they significantly reduced independent editorial content on some radio and TV stations.
Although a number of the larger media houses implemented strict guidelines on political advertising, the windfall from the election period was too great for some to resist. This was not helped by pressure from the ruling party for the media to flout provisions of the Election Offences Act that bars a sitting government from advertising its achievements on TV, radio or in print.
Social media: The new battlefield
Faced by tough controls on traditional media, the political elite moved their game online. Attack ads, which could never have seen the light of day on Kenyan TVs were published and widely shared on Facebook and Twitter. Unfiltered campaign messages were regularly posted on candidates’ websites and misinformation about the elections made its way to the popular messaging platform, Whatsapp, and to YouTube and Twitter.
The wild world of online communications raised fears that the Government of Kenya would copy the actions of its neighbour, Uganda, to switch off access to social media in the lead up to the elections. The anxiety was fuelled when the Communication Authority of Kenya tightened its regulations on the dissemination of ‘undesirable’ bulk political messages and social media content in July.
The Bloggers Association of Kenya, the country’s largest community of online content creators and bloggers, released a statement condemning the new guidelines. It contended that the Communications Authority had no right to “impose sanctions on entities it does not licence” and that the content generated on social media was outside the power and jurisdiction of state authorities.
To assuage fears, the government pledged its support of free access to the internet as a critical resource for communication and assured the country that it would not be shut down.
The attention given to free access to the internet highlighted a key shift in political communications in Kenya. Traditional media, while still influential, was being bypassed by politicians in favour of new media platforms. Nowhere was this more evident than in the much hyped presidential debates that were shunned by the incumbent President who chose to use Facebook chats to engage with the electorate rather than attend the debates. Much soul searching was done by the media to find a middle ground, but a few days before the election, it is not clear if radio, TV and newspapers can regain the seat of privilege they once held.
The challenges faced by Kenya’s media are not new or unique, and neither are the solutions. It is evident that media performance cannot be improved through stricter controls or harsher discipline. Rather, a combination of interventions that involve all stakeholders to support journalists’ work and citizens’ participation is the best way forward.
The citizenry requires a media that can access a broad range of information and voices to interpret, investigate and analyse issues of public concern. The media, on the other hand, needs a citizenry that is engaged, can hold power to account and demands the best from journalists.
In the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Union notes that “the key role of the media and other means of communication is in ensuring full respect for freedom of expression, in promoting the free flow of information and ideas, in assisting people to make informed decisions and in facilitating and strengthening democracy”.
Similarly, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression at the African Union holds that “the relationship between freedom of expression, access to information and elections need not be overemphasized. Free, fair and credible elections are not possible without free flow of information, free and diverse media and plurality of views.”
What the media’s performance ahead of the elections has taught us is that all power – both in and outside the media – must demand the highest protections and performance of all involved for the country to achieve meaningful progress in its democratic journey.
Bwire is a journalists based in Nairobi, Kenya.