Freedom of the Press
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Kenyan media have typically enjoyed a reputation for vibrant, aggressive reporting. However, their independence was threatened by the government in 2007 in a number of ways, including the establishment of a statutory media council to regulate the media and the banning of live news broadcasts following the failed presidential election in December.
Kenya’s constitution does not explicitly guarantee press freedom. Media operations are still governed by the constitution’s Section 79, which does not provide for freedom of speech but does guarantee citizens the broader right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the government routinely restricts this right by broadly interpreting several laws, including the Official Secrets Act, the penal code, and criminal libel legislation. Although defamation remains criminalized in Kenyan law, the attorney general declared in a 2005 defamation case that the archaic law would no longer be used to suppress freedom of expression. However, in a March 2007 civil libel case, the editor of the privately owned Independent newspaper, Mburu Muchoki, was sentenced to one year in prison owing to his inability to pay a US$7,200 fine; he was released in June after a presidential pardon. Muchoki had previously been convicted of libel for an article accusing the father of Martha Karua—the minister of justice and constitutional affairs and a close friend of the presiding judge—of being involved in an abortion scandal. Kenya was still without freedom of information legislation at year’s end, although a freedom of information bill was tabled in the parliament in May. In August, after months of acrimonious debate between lawmakers and media representatives, the parliament passed the Kenya Media Law, which authorized the creation of a statutory media council to replace the voluntary and self-regulatory council in existence since 2002. However, a last-minute amendment requiring editors to disclose the identity of their sources if asked to do so in court provoked a large-scale silent demonstration by journalists in Nairobi. President Mwai Kibaki ultimately refused to sign the law with the inclusion of the new amendment and sent it back to the parliament, where the amendment was swiftly removed and the legislation passed in October. The following month, a new Media Council was sworn in that included academics, media workers, and representatives of civil society groups. As it stands, the new law mandates a council of 15 members, with the chair being appointed by the minister of information and communications. It also limits who can be a reporter by defining a journalist as someone who “holds a diploma or a degree in mass communication from a recognized institution of higher learning” and requiring all media practitioners to register with the council for accreditation. Also withdrawn for revision was a communications bill that would have imposed limits on media ownership, among other restrictive provisions.
While instances of harassment and intimidation of the media decreased in 2007 from the prior year, the situation deteriorated markedly following the December 27 general election. Journalists, many of whom were unaccustomed to covering civil and political conflict, were threatened by tear-gas attacks and faced intimidation at polling stations. Moreover, on December 30—the same day the electoral commission mistakenly declared that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, had won the presidential election—the internal security minister announced that all live television and radio broadcasts would be formally banned indefinitely. This prevented up-to-date coverage of the rapidly changing events and inhibited the media’s ability to question the electoral commission’s verdict in the face of growing evidence of irregularities. By year’s end, the situation for the media was tenuous indeed, with reporters facing violence and outlets themselves subject to overt censorship.
Although the number of private media outlets has risen steadily, the government-controlled public broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), remains dominant outside of the major urban centers, and its coverage tended to favor the ruling party. KBC also started a new network in 2007, K24, which exhibited signs of a progovernment bias. Nonetheless, private media outlets are generally outspoken and critical of government policies, and considering the limitations, much of the domestic media provided robust coverage of the postelection violence. Two private companies, the Standard Media Group and the Nation Media Group, are influential media houses, running independent television networks and well-respected newspapers. There has been a significant expansion of FM radio, particularly ethnic stations, increasing public participation as well as commentary unfavorable to the government through call-in shows. Unfortunately, many of these vernacular stations were accused of broadcasting ethnic hate speech in the wake of the election. International news media, including the British Broadcasting Corporation and Radio France Internationale, are widely available in Kenya. There are no reports that the government restricted internet access or monitored e-mails. In fact, the internet is a growing place for vibrant political debate for both residents and the diaspora, and blogs were a crucial source for current information, images, and opinions following the ban on other live broadcasts. The percentage of Kenyans accessing the internet more than doubled in 2007, from 3 percent the previous year to 7.5 percent. This percentage is expected to rise in the coming years with the anticipated completion of an underwater fiber-optic cable from the Middle East, which will improve internet speed and affordability.