A Reprieve for Kenyan Journalists

Kenyan journalists have won a temporary reprieve from two laws that they say would put significant new restrictions on media freedom by imposing a code of conduct written and enforced by a government-appointed panel.

Kenyan journalists protest in Nairobi on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Khalil Senosi

The laws, set for enactment early this year, were postponed in January when a court ordered a judicial review that could take several months to complete, according to journalists in Nairobi.

Both laws passed swiftly through the Kenyan Parliament in late 2013, in the wake of government attacks on media for their reporting on how authorities handled last September’s siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.

But some journalists say the mall attack coverage was only one example of the current government’s intolerance of criticism by the media.

“Journalists were surprised [about the laws] after several assurances by President [Uhuru Kenyatta] and Deputy [William Ruto] that they would uphold independence and freedom of the media,” said David Ohito, online editor of the Standard Media Group and vice-chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild. “But being Kenyan politicians, the president and his deputy never kept their word nor never meant their commitments to a free media.”

Ohito was a leader in the effort to win judicial review of the laws after their passage in December. The court-ordered temporary suspension suggests that there is a chance they may be overturned on the grounds that they are not constitutional.

If enacted, the laws would replace Kenya’s current self-regulating media body with a new, government-appointed panel that would write and enforce a journalistic code of conduct. Violations of the code could result in fines of 500,000 shillings ($5,500) for an individual journalist and 20 million shillings ($230,000) for media houses.

Journalists say these stiff fines are excessive for individuals and could bring even Kenya’s largest media companies to their knees.

“Most journalists are paid peanuts,” said Mwenda Kilemi, a journalism professor at the University of Nairobi. Though Kenyan media are generally regarded as among the most professional and independent in Africa, low pay leaves individual journalists vulnerable to bribes – which in turn makes them more vulnerable to government criticism. “The politicians were happy to tie a leash around the media’s neck” with the new laws, said Kilemi.

Kenyan media provided blanket coverage of September’s Westgate Mall attack and subsequent siege, in which more than 70 people lost their lives. Kenyan and international media reported that the government and the military mishandled the crisis, including allowing soldiers to loot the mall after the attackers were defeated.

In response, President Kenyatta criticized the media for “irresponsible reporting,” according to Kenyan TV station K24 television. The police also arrested two journalists from the Kenyan TV station KTN on the grounds that their coverage of the Westgate massacre was “provoking propaganda.”

At a press conference on October 23, the head of Kenyan police, David Kimaiyo addressed the Westgate coverage and the arrest of KTN journalists, telling the media, “You need to not incite Kenyans. You need to not distribute or issue statements that can amount to hate speech. And you need to not issue statements or reports that can be able to affect the life of another person.”

Other journalists rallied to defend the KTN journalists and their reporting. The Westgate story, said Ohito, “is a scapegoat” used by the government to pursue its goal of greater control over media.

For years, the government has been working to establish more control, according to Ohito. In 2008 for example, the parliament gave police the power to raid media offices, tap journalists’ phones and filter broadcasts that might interfere with “national security.” That law passed after violence erupted across the country following a flawed 2007 election.

Journalists say that the financial structure of Kenyan media has often made it difficult to fight government interference.

Many of Kenya’s main media groups are partially or completely owned by key government figures. Former president Daniel Arap Moi, for example, owns the majority of shares in the Standard Media Group, one of the largest media houses in Kenya, according to a report by Internews, a non-profit media development organization. The report also said that Kenyatta owns the Mediamax Company, whose holdings include K24 television, Kameme FM and a newspaper, The People.

Despite the government’s hold over the Kenyan media, Kenya continues to be one of the freest countries for the press in East Africa. In the past, laws and government actions have not always prevented journalists from publishing investigative articles that criticize the government, including critiques of the new media laws.

“The media here in Kenya are remarkably fearless and generally ignore most of the implied or explicit criticism and threats,” said Karen Rothmyer, former public editor for the Kenyan newspaper The Star and former managing editor of The Nation. “It would be a mistake to make too big a deal of the media bill.”

Rothmyer believes that the Kenyatta government’s complaints about media are not surprising. During her time at The Star, she said, Kenyatta sued the newspaper several times, but aside from a reprimand from the self-regulating Media Council of Kenya, the paper suffered no major consequences.

“Politicians everywhere–including the US–tend to dislike the media and are constantly trying to rein them in. I worry a lot more about many other countries than I do Kenya,” she said.

Not everyone is reassured by the media’s history of successfully fighting the government. Some fear the code of conduct laws are just the beginning of a Kenyatta-led campaign to tighten media controls.

“Top state officials have described me as a difficult rebel within the media who is making people uncomfortable,” said Ohito, who has kept a high profile in the fight to get courts to overturn the code of conduct law. “If we lose this case I will quit as a journalist because I know I will be the first target.”