In characteristic Kenyan humour, Kenyans on social media described the shutdown of four television stations as an exercise of the long arm of the government. Simply put, the government denied the audience access to information, leaving it with blacked out television sets.
There was nothing humorous about the shut down though, it was a government annexure of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Days before the shutdown, the Editor’s Guild in Kenya had expressed their concern about the government’s move to censure coverage of the opposition, National Super Alliance’s “swearing” of Raila Odinga. This would turn out to herald the advent of a push and pull between the government and the three media houses directly affected by the shutdown; Nation Media Group, Standard Media and Royal Media Services.
Despite a court order given by the High court to the Communication Authority to restore airwaves to the television stations, the government ignored the orders given on January 30th and only did so a week later but left out two television stations, Citizen TV and Inooro TV belonging to Royal Media Services.
Media freedom in Kenya is enshrined in the constitution. However, while the freedom is guaranteed, there arises the question of who should guard and monitor against any excesses by the media houses.
While giving the decree for the shutdown of the media houses, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Government Coordination, Dr. Fred Matiang’i stated that the media houses posed a threat to state security by airing the ‘swearing in’ ceremony.
The threat, however, cannot be quantified as some pundits opine that the ceremony was a mock inauguration and a move by the opposition to score political mileage. To those of this school of thought, this didn’t surmount to an act of high treason. The actions of the government through the regulator, the Communications Authority, are seen as an excessive use of force to intimidate and muzzle the media.
The role of the media in covering this event, according to the government, was to aid an illegal power grab by the opposition. The media houses maintain that they were practicing what journalism entails, reporting and bringing to the masses what is happening around them.
The fourth estate has found itself at loggerheads with the government in the recent past, with another shutdown during the migration from analogue transmission of airwaves to digital transmission. While the media practices what it terms as the truth, it is often seen as an attack on the government itself.
The tug of war hasn’t been limited to the executive arm of government only. It can be remembered that in 2013, journalists were kicked out of the parliament media center by the clerk of the National Assembly. Shortly after, the National Assembly passed a legislation that was described as ‘draconian’. The passage of the Kenya Information and Communication (Amendment) Act and the Media Council Act, was seen as a turnaround to state interference on the freedom of expression and independence of the media.
While previous regimes might have had issues with the coverage of the media, there had never been a discontinuance of any media outlet.
In order to protect the provisions of the constitution and safeguard the freedom of the media, the state should have explored diplomatic ways over confrontational and aggressive to get the media to read from the same page as itself.
The issue of stand offs between government and media houses isn’t exclusive to Kenya. Worldwide, governments have often found themselves in a tug of war with media houses. The United States’ President, Donald Trump has always disparaged media stations and even coined the term ‘Fake news’ to describe their coverage. This has an effect of casting aspersions on the reputation of the media.
Closer home, the governments in Tanzania and Uganda have cracked down on media outlets a number of times. In Tanzania for instance, the government banned four newspapers in 2017, over what it termed as unethical reporting.
An important role of the mass media is reporting and acting as a watchdog of the government. Coincidentally, an effective opposition should play the same role of being a watchdog. This therefore positions the media at a position where it would be assumed to be working in cahoots with the opposition against the government.
The fourth estate should therefore chart a path of total independence from either the government or its opposition. The media should also realize the role it plays in informing the masses and the ability to reach wide audiences with strong and influential messages which impact upon the society. This therefore calls for an independent yet responsible media.
Burugu Babu is a Junior Research Associate at the Eastern Africa Policy Centre