Kenya

Putting Kenya's media shutdown in context

By taking major tv channels off the air, Kenyan government showed that it is still in the midst of a legitimacy crisis.

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga takes a symbolic presidential oath in front of his supporters and members of the media in Nairobi, Kenya on January 30 [Thomas Mukoya/Reuters]

On Tuesday, December 30, the Kenyan government took the unprecedented step of shutting down three of the largest television stations in the country. At KTN, the first independent station in Kenya, the signal was merely switched off. But at Citizen Television and NTV, officials of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) allegedly went to one of their main distribution locations and physically disconnected their machines. This after a Monday evening memorandum from the chair of the Editor's Guild of Kenya, Linus Kaikai, alleging that all senior editors in the country had been summoned by the president and deputy president among other officials and told that if they covered the parallel inauguration ceremony called by the opposition coalition NASA, they would be punished.

That's a lot of information for anyone to process in five days, but for Kenyans especially this latest plot twist in the story of an election that just won't end marks another step deep into unchartered territory. The opposition coalition NASA called for the parallel inauguration because they insist that Raila Odinga won the August election and the October rerun was invalid. They summoned their supporters to Uhuru Park in Nairobi so they could witness Odinga sworn in as "the People's President". And tens of thousands showed up - far more than attended the Independence Day celebrations in December. The state, fronted by Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Fred Matiang'i insists that the inauguration was treasonous and any media house that covered it is party to treason.

All three stations remained off air until today, when a high court judge issued an injunction against the action pending full legal review. This is a small victory in the context of the alarming contraction of civil space that the disconnection represents. At the height of the repressive Moi regime, several journalists were arrested and their publications stopped, but in this period only the print market was diversified while only state-owned organisations operated television and radio stations. Private television was only allowed in 1990, so there is little precedent for such a sweeping action within the television space. Only during the height of the 2007 political crisis that led to the post-election violence were television stations banned from broadcasting for a few hours, followed by a still-in-place mandatory 7-minute delay on live broadcasts. 

The authoritarian move opens a new front in what had so far been a struggle between two political networks, adding the media to the fray even if the fraternity is highly divided in its response. Kaikai, also the managing editor at the Nation Media Group, leads a faction that insists it will not be intimidated by the state, and that the constitutional freedom of expression protects the media's right to broadcast any issues of public interest. In contrast, editors at the state-owned broadcasters and those owned privately by the president insist covering the parallel inauguration ceremony was "subversion". For his determination, Kaikai spent Wednesday night in his office as plain-clothes policemen allegedly surrounded the office building, waiting to arrest him and his colleagues.

The Jubilee administration doesn't need another battlefront given the legitimacy questions leftover by contentious 2017 election, and it is unclear from a purely instrumentalist perspective why they would open one up. By responding with so much force, the administration unwittingly signalled that the NASA event rattled them even while the actual "inauguration" was rather anticlimactic. Odinga was only on stage for about 15 minutes. None of the other NASA principles turned up. For most of the morning, viewers were treated to panoramic images of the crowd gathering at Uhuru Park and a gaggle of men offering in-studio analysis. Switching off three media houses just because you can is the definition of swatting a fly on your head with a hammer - painful, self-destructive and counterproductive.

It's worth noting that while this latest move is certainly surprising it isn't exactly unexpected. One of the first moves of this administration was the Media Council Act of 2013, which among other things gave the Cabinet Secretary for Information the authority to establish a Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal with the power to impose criminal sanctions and hefty fines, as well as suspend any member. In court, lawyers representing the Editors Guild and other interested parties argued that this bill would greatly reduce media freedom in the country - which it did by raising a fear of retribution. At the same time, senior journalists like Gado and Dennis Galava, fired for publishing materials unpopular with the state, also assert on record that they were fired because of directives from State House rather than from their superiors.

Yet much of the space that the Kenyan media has lost in recent years has been ceded willingly. Over the 2017 election period, none of the established media houses - including the three affected - would cover ongoing violence in informal settlements until the information circulating on social media could no longer be ignored. At the same time, both NMG and the Royal Media Group that owns Citizen asserted in the build-up to the August vote that they had a reporter at every polling station yet neither published independent tallies of the electoral results. They simply parroted Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) statistics that the commission itself disavowed during the Supreme Court proceedings. Moreover, until the High Court ruled that they had to stop, every station broadcast advertisements praising the administration's achievements in the lead up to the election even though the Election law expressly forbids it.  

Even the practice of summoning editors to state offices is arguably an extension of the infamous July 2013 "media breakfast" when the Editor's Guild met the president and his deputy at statehouse "to discuss how the State and media should interact", as if these roles aren't already clearly defined. Some weeks after this meeting, David Makali, Executive Director of the Media Institute noted with concern the administration's intolerance for criticism, warning in the Nairobi Business Monthly that they have "[a] certain intolerance for information that questions [their] legitimacy ... anything that questions [their] validity is likely to be met suppression". Backchannels and access journalism is bad enough, but even by 2013 many in civil society flagged that brazenly waving such comity between the state and the media was a worrying development.

One hopes that this scare triggers an awakening of sorts in the media fraternity - a realisation that they are only useful as far as they hold up a mirror to the government. This will not be easy in the context of such open division within the media associations but it's worth recalling that such tension isn't new. Someone always benefits from state authoritarianism and prefers to maintain the status quo rather than move towards more openness. While independent media bore the brunt of Moi's authoritarianism, Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation (KBC) thrived yet eventually the pressure to move towards an open and just society prevailed.

Unfortunately, on the political side the media shutdown suggests that the legitimacy crisis triggered by the problematic October 26 election rerun is haunting the administration. This draconian overreach makes them look panicked and needing a major show of force in order to maintain the appearance of control. It is having the opposite effect. Rather than quelling the underlying unrest, it has exacerbated it and more tests of authority from various actors are surely on the way.

The political crisis leftover by the election lumbers on.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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