RISING CENSORSHIP

How press freedom is eroding as media struggles to survive

State and private entities are exploiting revenue woes to influence decisions

In Summary

• The media has taken a hit in circulation and advertising, while intimidation is rising

• The freedom to hold the powerful accountable is constrained by business interests

Newspapers on display in a stand in Nairobi. There is concerns that circulation of newspaper and dwindling advertising revenue is exposing the media to manipulation and intimidation by the state, private business.
Newspapers on display in a stand in Nairobi. There is concerns that circulation of newspaper and dwindling advertising revenue is exposing the media to manipulation and intimidation by the state, private business.
Image: FILE

As the world celebrates Press Freedom Day today, meaningful independence remains elusive to Kenyan media despite improvement over the past decade.

The sector’s freedom is undermined by threats and attacks on individual reporters, withholding of advertisements and deliberate nonpayment of advertising debt by state institutions.

Global ranking scores suggest Kenya is on the right track but still suffers below average press freedom.

The World Data Atlas shows that in 2020, the press freedom score in the country stood at 33.72, up from 32.44 in 2019. In 2018, the country scored 30.82. Previously it was 32.20 in 2017, 31.16 (2016), 32.07 (2015), 30.70 (2014), 27.80 (2013), 29.50 (2012), 19.00 (2010).

The Media Council of Kenya is marking the Freedom Day with discussions around the theme ‘Information as a public good’. This comes in the wake of muzzling not just by state operatives and politicians but also within media houses, with some resorting to self-censorship amid intimidation by the powerful.

For example, last year, a reporter at a local daily was detailed to travel with and cover a ranking Cabinet Secretary who had led a host of other Cabinet Secretaries to a function in Murang’a.

At the function, other CSs heaped praises on their powerful colleague, who was the guest of honour and, as per protocol, would have the last word. The praises were along the lines of the 2022 presidential elections, alleging the minister would fit the bill to succeed their boss President Uhuru Kenyatta.

When the reporter retired to write his story, he focused on the theme of the function and the main reason why the CSs used taxpayer’s shillings to travel to the function. He avoided the political talk and made no mention of the hype on the powerful man’s presidential potential by his fellow CSs.

The following day, the powerful CS was agitated at the omission of that “important part” and called the editors of the paper to demand answers. He demanded that the reporter be sacked. He was, in fact, sacked.

“They [editors] reprimanded me that I missed the story and focused on non-entities. One of them hinted to me that the CS was very angry,” the former reporter told the Star in confidence.

The government and private entities are currently taking advantage of the flagging revenue streams and sliding circulation of the papers to put their thumb on the scale
Suba Churchill

EXPOSE AT OWN RISK

In another case at a different newspaper, a reporter filed a news report about corruption and swindling of public funds meant for responding to the Covid-19 pandemic mid-last year. The funds were reported as loans from World Bank but connected officials turned them into loot to line their pockets.

As is expected, the reporter filed his story and the editors approved it, subjecting it to the editorial process for onward publication the following day in a prime section.

But mysteriously, a senior official in the government got wind of the story just before the page was sent to press and called the publishing editor for a dressing down.

The amiable editor instructed his juniors, without disclosing the conversation with the powerful caller, that they should hold the story.

However, a mix-up in communication saw the page designers retain the story on the page, meaning it ran anyway.

All hell broke loose the following day. A high-ranking official with a powerful say in government called the publishing editor for a scolding, threatening to “completely cripple the paper if it is out to humiliate and expose the administration”.

Luckily, the editor was patient with his juniors and no heads rolled at the leading paper.

Civil Society Reference Group coordinator Suba Churchill told the Star Kenya is still far from true press freedom, terming the current situation “a false semblance of press independence and freedom used as a decoy to undermine that very right”.

He said the civil society is concerned that the government still has an upper hand in dealing with the press as it uses advertising revenue to influence editorial independence of the fourth estate and determine what (news content) runs and what does not.

“The government and private entities are currently taking advantage of the flagging revenue streams and sliding circulation of the papers to put their thumb on the scale,” Churchill said.

“We know the dynamics of the media space. Sometimes most editors cannot recognise headlines that they were part of in the evening because someone manipulated it, changed the bylines or watered down or totally changed the substance on the stories in favour of some patronising interest.”

The civil society coordinator said press freedom is currently constrained on all fronts, starting from the owners, business interests and proximity to power.

Some of the politicians, powerful government figureheads and business players either own some media houses or are close to the bosses with a say on editorial content, he added.

“This opens them up to being remote-controlled,” Churchill said.

Freedom of the media is the glue that binds together democracy and holds those in power accountable. It is not a crime
Paul Ilado

BUSINESS VULNERABILITY

Media Council of Kenya CEO David Omwoyo said the council is aware of the systematic erosion of press freedom and increasing attacks against journalists especially during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“I urge everyone to respect and uphold journalists’ rights even during the lockdowns,” Omwoyo said.

Radio Africa Group head of content Paul Ilado told the Media Council journalism has survived “against the backdrop of a very difficult year that saw a drop in industry circulation figures for print, shrinking advertising, delayed payments and intimidation”.

“Freedom of the media is the glue that binds together democracy and holds those in power accountable. It is not a crime,” Ilado said. 

Standard Media Group editor-in-chief Ochieng’ Rapuro decried how press independence and freedom continues to be constrained subtly by business and finance interests, given the disruptions that the fourth estate has suffered.

He said media freedom faces an existential threat as the business model of most media entities has been grossly disrupted by digital tech.

“There cannot be press freedom without independent media. And there cannot be an independent media without a sustainable business model to finance it," Rapuro said.

Government spokesman Cyrus Oguna said media freedom should go hand in hand with responsibility.

“Media freedom is an important pillar in nurturing democracy and protecting fundamental rights,” he said in a statement shared by the MCK. “However, freedom must be accompanied by the responsibility of knowing what is necessary to preserve a socially cohesive society.”

Veteran editor Joe Odindo said Covid-19 has demonstrated that a competent and robust media cannot be dispensable and that all efforts must be enlisted to guarantee media freedom and independence.

“It has shown that the media has to be free and competent. This can’t be achieved if we allow official intolerance and financial difficulties to stifle professional journalism,” Odindo said.

University media lecturer Levy Obonyo said media freedom could be tested by the upcoming General Election. He called for vigilance by sector players, civil society and the general public.

“Press freedom in Kenya could be at a delicate balance given the experience of the media in Uganda and Tanzania in the lead up to their general elections,” the Daystar lecturer said. “The Kenyan media should, therefore, be on guard.”