Soft censorship and bias: the present-day threats to freedom of the press in Kenya

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Media freedom in Kenya is founded on the Constitution, national legislations and international instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) grants every person the freedom of opinion and expression; which includes freedom to receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.1 Article 34 of the Constitution provides for this right in more profound terms as it goes ahead to stipulate how the government and the media should relate. International and regional instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights also recognize this right.

Freedom of the media is widely accepted as the foundation to democracy in every society. Apart from assisting in discovery of the truth, free press strengthens individual’s capacity to participate in decision making. 2 The decisions may include political decisions. Therefore, media freedom and fair electoral process go hand in hand. Thus the media is expected to act impartially, fairly, professionally and in a balanced manner in order to promote democracy. Consequently, the oversight function of media is rooted in its independence and objectivity.3

In the recent months, there has a surge in an apparent bias in political headlines and front pages on Kenyan newspapers. More often than not the stories exhibited on front pages appear to push a narrative in favour of a given political divide. Therefore, this article will focus on some of the reasons behind a trend that has taken root in the scene of political reporting in Kenya particularly the print press and some Television talk shows and live interviews.

Various players in the media industry agree that commercial interests, partisanship, social media and political ownership of news outlets are the greatest threat to media freedom in Kenya.4 Despite laws regulating the conduct of journalists and media enterprises in Kenya; soft censorship and commercial interests have taken a spot in dictating the manner and nature of content delivered to the masses.

The Corporate effect on private print press

One aspect that explains the nature of political reporting exhibited by Kenyan print media is the corporate nature of the media in Kenya. The Kenyan media market is largely dominated by private press a few public and community based media houses and an almost non-influential state owned media house. Despite its important role, corporate media is entirely set up for profit making and earning commercial revenue just like other businesses.5

Contrary to the conduct prescribed by the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in the Media Council Act; corporate interest has effect on how print media delivers its political news. To further independence, the Code prescribes that journalists should not allow the ownership or management of media enterprise to news’ judgment or content.6 Whereas I appreciate that it is impossible for journalists to achieve absolute independence from owners of media enterprises there ought not to be an apparent and visible lack of it.

The corporate strategy and owners’ policies make the Kenyan media choose their own agenda. Most newspaper headlines are designed to attract readership which boosts sales and increase revenue. Similarly, the talk shows and interviews have also succumbed to the concept of “vetting” in order to prevent posing of questions likely to injure the media houses’ corporate interests. Whereas private newspapers may have their own agenda which is not necessarily democratic, Kenyan conventional media should at least set an impartial agenda. Heeding to the set agenda may not promote political pluralism and in turn affect the value of media in a democratic setting.7 A chosen political agenda will almost inevitably affect the selection of which news is to be covered and the manner in which they are covered.8

Media corporate interests have weakened the ideal forth estate in Kenya. The ideal newsroom as envisioned in the national legislations, particularly the Kenya Information and Communication Act, Media Council Act and the Code of conduct scheduled thereto is that which is guided by independence and objectivity. However, Kenyan newsrooms and print media have been robbed of these principles and are now serving the owners’ corporate interests at the expense of professional delivery of news.

Media bias Having established that the corporate interest is a one of the threats to free press in Kenya, it is possible to consider media bias as another significant contributor. Media bias
is defined as the bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media, concerning the selection of events and stories that are reported, and how they are covered.9 Ethically, journalists and editors are supposed execute their duties professionally while avoiding bias whether personal or otherwise.10 That is to say, media reports should by all means be fair and unbiased.

Notably, most Kenyan media houses tout themselves as unbiased free press. This is not entirely true as the corporate interest and editorial policies discussed above often culminate into bias. Concentration of the media in private hands has led to accusations of bias. The phenomenon of editorial bias is silent in Kenyan media hence needs a close scrutiny to be noticed. Media bias reflects the political views of an institution as opposed to those of an individual reporter, editor or director.

It is not only the Kenyan media that faces the challenge of biasness, so many democracies do. For instance the strength of media in the America’s Watergate scandal has been criticized as that which was fueled by political bias. Similarly, most of the scandals unearthed by the Kenyan conventional media in the first term of Jubilee administration were attributed to political instigation. It is likely that most editors were influenced by political bias and went for stories that would appear to satisfy the perceived displeasure among Kenyans.

For this reason, the Kenyan print media received praises of boldness and attacks on bias in equal measure. This is the period during which the common street phrase “Gazeti ni ya kufunga” (Newspapers for use as wraps in butcheries) was born and propelled by the political class in Kenya. Although such attacks hurt the freedom of the media and are unwarranted, the audience is likely to disregard the stories which appear to be fueled by political bias. Sequentially, the media ends up not fulfilling its purpose.

Advertising bias Revenue earned by media in Kenya is from a restricted number of sources. Of these few sources, government and corporate advertisement is the greatest contributor. Government and government affiliated advertisers have huge influence which allows them to indirectly control what is published and what is not. This control often emanate from the sweet deals offered or the fear of withdrawal of adverts from perceived “offending” outlets.

Previously, the government was known for using crude means to censure the media. These means went as far as raids and shutdowns on media houses, threatening and use of physical violence journalists. The government has now resorted to soft censorship in order to have the media comply. This has also trickled down to county governments as they use threats of withdrawing advertisements to avert negative publicity.

There have been a number of visible attempts employed by the government to advance this soft censorship. In February 2017 the government withdrew advertising from the mainstream media and resorted to advertising through its generic publication known as MY.GOV. This was seen from many quarters as a plan to draw the media houses into compliance during the 2017 campaigns. This move was taken after the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) which was established in 2015 failed to pick up. The MY.GOV publication would also not attract enough audience due to the private media the government chose to circulate it through. GAA was touted by the government as a tool for controlling expenditure while editors and media houses argue that it has been misused to threaten editorial independence.11

Therefore, the current behavior exhibited by conventional media in Kenya can be attributed to these soft censorship mechanisms. The media is playing a game and as long as the ball rolls, it wishes to stay on the correct political side; that is the side that favours government advertisers. With headlines favouring a political narrative propelled by the State, the media houses will be able to maintain advertising deals from government agencies hence the revenue earned from the same.

Sensationalism The Oxford Dictionary defines sensationalism as a concept of journalism where the media presents stories in a manner intended to invoke public excitement at the expense of accuracy. This ideology is not new in the Kenyan news
reporting scene. The Waki and Kriegler reports that investigated the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya sharply criticized the media for fueling violence through sensational headlines. Although the Media Council of Kenya Report released in 2013 assessing how responsible the media was in reporting the March 2013 general elections12 absolved the media; the trend of sensational headlines and stories remains entrenched in the Kenyan conventional media.

A Media monitoring Report on the coverage of the Kenya General Elections 2017 published by Peace Pen Communications Limited noted that media houses were at the height of delivering sensational reports on the campaigns and the elections in general. Now, the changing landscape of journalism has seen conventional media incorporate digital dissemination of their news content as teasers before print. Most media houses have resorted to sensational headlines and teasers that would easily excite the online users and lure them into buying the newspapers when they are offered as prints.

Sensational reports affect the readers’ reception of the story as they are likely to be carried away by the excitement around the headlines. Just like bias, sensational headlines have also earned the Kenyan media some criticisms. It is the tendency to follow sensational stories that saw the conventional media labeled the degrading tag of “Githeri Media”. As previously observed this kind of attitude is likely to make the conventional media run into the danger of being taken casually by its audience.

Conclusion From the above, it is clear that corporate interests, sensationalism, media and advertising biases have a can be used to explain the apparent orientation of political content disseminated by the Kenyan print media and the manner in which it is delivered. Whereas it is acknowledged that political reporting requires a delicate balancing act, it should be done with a lot of professionalism. If these factors are widely noticed among the audience, it will be difficult for the conventional media to habour the influence expected of it as a tool of democratisation. For that reason the conventional media should be fair and unbiased lest it loses its value in a democratic setting. To this end, only the media will nurture its freedom in Kenya.

Pamba Ouma is an Advocate Trainee at Ochoki & Co. Advocates. He has practice and research interests in Litigation & Dispute Resolution and Participatory Democracy & Election Law respectively.

 

 

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