Kenya's new government database.
Kenya's new government database.

Kenya’s quiet information revolution

An information revolution is quietly unfolding in Kenya, potentially allowing the public greater access to government data and independent local news. This month, the nation became a regional leader in open government with the launch of a website providing easy access to volumes of public information. Journalists can tap into public budget data with relative ease through the government portal. 

“A lot of the information was actually already out there but it used to be very difficult to extract data from the government,” says Alex Gakuru, a proponent of open information and chairman of the ICT Consumers Association of Kenya. Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Information Bitange Ndemo said he believes the data will help journalists report on issue-based politics rather than personalities. “The data release will completely change the way the government deals with the public and will strike a huge blow against corruption,” Ndemo said. Numerous media reports have documented alleged government corruption in Kenya over many years.

But launching the site has not been easy. Ndemo told me it took five years of pushing and a request for the president’s intervention to make it happen. Some may argue that poor Internet penetration allows the government to “safely” reveal data online without subjecting itself to much scrutiny. But fiber-optic connectivity is expected to grow quickly in sub-Saharan Africa over the next two years, so this online data will likely be seen by ever-growing numbers of people.

There is also a practical economic reason for the government’s decision to expose its budgetary skeletons. Kenya was nicknamed the “Silicon Savannah” at a recent mobile phone technology and applications conference in recognition of its leading role in developing mobile applications. “For us to retain that leadership, it was imperative that we fuel development with local data,” Ndemo said.

Initiatives to liberalize the airwaves are also under way. Analysts believe the impending switch to from analog to digital broadcasting will change the nature of broadcasting throughout Kenya. “It is true that media in Kenya is in very few hands,” Ndemo said, “but the digital migration will help correct the imbalance.” Digitalization will erase existing limits on the number of available frequencies; in theory, applicants will receive frequencies based on their demonstrated ability to provide content. 

It was only in 2003, not that long ago, that Kenya opened the airwaves to private broadcasters. At the time, only the state broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) was allowed to operate. Still, many journalists complain that the majority of broadcasters launched since 2003 are in the hands of a few elite individuals with ties to the government. Out of 384 registered with the state-controlled Communication Commission of Kenya, 40 percent are owned by two companies, one of them being KBC, according to CPJ research.

Regulatory action may also increase the diversity of voices. The Communication Commission has started a public consultation process on a proposed program code. One of the results of this consultative process will be a requirement for broadcasters to provide 40 percent local content. The move reflects a national shift, ratified as part of the new constitution in August 2010, to a county-based political system. Levi Obonyo, chairman of the Media Council, which serves an independent press ombudsman, said he suspects a big change will come to the state broadcaster in response to the country’s efforts for local representation. “Each county will have its own broadcast unit but with a potential to reach the entire country,” he told me. “What does that do to the domination of the current broadcasters? I think it is likely to be a sea change.”

New attention to local, county-based news is not only for broadcasters. The Standard, one Kenya’s leading independent dailies, has launched a weekly that focuses on local news within the county. The first edition’s headlines read: “News in 2012: Corruption coming to a town near you.” “Even though the constitution provides for a devolved government, the system will not be robust without a forum where issues about it are freely discussed,” Standard reporter Jibril Adan wrote.

These developments have been accompanied by little fanfare. A deep sense of mistrust and cynicism prevails within the Kenya media. Kenya’s vibrant press continues to expose officials enmeshed in corruption and crime, without seeing signs of permanent reform. The press has been awash, for instance, with reports of a coastal MP accused of drug trafficking, but the politician remains in office. The Standard’s regional news editor, David Ohito, says reporting on crime along Kenya’s coast “is one of the trickiest tasks facing journalists in Kenya today. There is little cooperation from the police [as] suspects include some of the high and mighty, including top political families.”

Reporting from the other side of Kenya is a similar story. “It is challenging to report in western Kenya,” Kisumu-based Financial Post reporter Bernard Okebe told me. “Often reporters are forced to change their writing simply to save themselves from the wrath of local politicians and officials. Journalists are simply not able to report freely.”

Since 2009, CPJ has reported on the gruesome murder of former Weekly Citizen journalist Francis Nyaruri in the western town of Nyamira, calling for a genuine investigation. The culprits remain free despite an order from the attorney general to investigate the potential role of local police in the murder.

Nonetheless, greater access to local, independent broadcasts and government information will offer more chances for Kenya’s press to make a difference. The Kenyan press continues to cover ongoing protests against Education Minister Sam Ongeri over the alleged misuse of public funds. Local journalists tell me they are already preparing for the 2012 elections and hope to have monitoring systems in place to combat the tampering that occurred in the hotly disputed and violent 2007 election. One can hope that Kenya’s media reforms, as a leader in the region, will rub off favorably on their neighbors such as Uganda and Ethiopia whose press freedom records have declined sharply.