Information Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo has criticized the press in the past. (The Nation)
Information Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo has criticized the press in the past. (The Nation)

New challenges for local and foreign press in Kenya

Kenya has passed peacefully through its election period, but questions still hang over the legitimacy of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory–as well as over the future of the country’s media coverage. During polling, challenges arose for both local and international media, and they have not subsided. For the foreign press, it is now unclear how to get accreditation to report in the country. Local journalists are worried about the rise of self-censorship, and freedom of expression advocates are concerned by plans for vague regulations on hate speech.

Tensions between international journalists and Kenyans–including local journalists, Internet users, and authorities–rose early in the campaign. CNN in particular was harshly criticized for a report on an armed militia deemed overblown and incendiary. (CNN stood by the story, according to news reports). International journalists were likely on guard for the same politically charged, ethnic violence that devastated the country during the 2007-8 election period, when over 1,200 people died in the wake of allegations of rigged vote results. Weary of a repeatedly tarnished image and fearful of irresponsible coverage inciting tensions, Kenyans lashed out at international journalists in the local press and on social media.

“I think no matter what people thought of these stories the backlash [and] hostility we saw was disproportionate to the criticism we received,” said Gabe Joselow, a board member of the Foreign Correspondent’s Association of East Africa and correspondent for the U.S.-backed broadcaster Voice of America. Information Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo, who had formerly criticized the international press for alleged negative and false reporting, struck a conciliatory note at a meeting last Friday. “In no way would we want to intimidate journalists,” Ndemo told a room of foreign and local scribes. “In 2007 it was SMS texts that threatened the press. Now it’s social media and it’s getting worse and worse, including threats to the international journalists,” he said.

Going forward, however, international journalists may face bigger obstacles than a series of angry tweets. On March 13, the Director of Information Joseph Owiti warned that the government might use security forces to deport foreign journalists without proper accreditation, according to local reports. “The Department of Information is currently the organization that is charged with the responsibility of accrediting international journalists wishing to work in this country so if they don’t have it then they should not be here,” Owiti told a press conference. While enforcing accreditation regulations may sound benign, Owiti’s comments caused consternation because under Kenya’s Media Act the statutory Media Council of Kenya, not the Department of Information, is in charge of journalists’ accreditation.

Ndemo told reporters that the Media Act is “under review” and for the time being foreign correspondents must seek accreditation through the Department of Information due to immigration and security issues. “We are looking at the media law to allow international journalists to get accredited at the Media Council but the process is slow due to immigration issues,” he said. The Media Council disagreed. “We issued over 50 press cards to foreign journalists and had no problem with this as long as they provide evidence of legal authority to be in Kenya and valid testimonials of their career as journalists,” Council Chief Executive Haron Mwangi told the local press. An editorial in one of Kenya’s leading dailies, the Nation, backed the Council: “In the first instance, the Ministry of Information and Communications [which houses the Department of Information] has absolutely no legal mandate to issue press cards. Press accreditation for both local and foreign journalists is handled by the Media Council of Kenya. If the ministry has been issuing any press cards to journalists, it has been doing so in assumed exercise of powers it does not legally possess.”

“Currently there seems to be two avenues for accreditation so we [international journalists] are not clear on the right course of action. It’s confusing,” Joselow said.

Even as the foreign press came under criticism for its election coverage, reactions by authorities and the public toward the local press was generally praiseworthy. Kiprono Kittony, the chairman of the Media Owners’ Association, said the press did a “fantastic job” of keeping the public informed without compromising peace and security, according to wire reports. “I’ve no doubt that history will place the biggest credit on the mass media,” Strathmore Law School Dean Luis Franceschi extolled in a local publication. “Their self-restraint, positive outlook, constant propaganda for peace and calm, is an example to the world of the wonderful use of self-regulating power.”

But this praise may have come at a steep price. Many journalists have expressed frustration to me, saying the local media strongly self-censored. One reporter, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said editors culled stories even when there was no apparent likelihood of incitement. “We were either censored or bribed into silence,” he told me. After presidential candidate Raila Odinga claimed the election results were rigged and filed a petition with the Supreme Court, he accused the local press of ignoring his party’s concerns, according to news reports. “Kenyan media was so scared of triggering violence with their stories they folded up,” said Standard photojournalist George Mwangangi via Facebook. “They became a mouthpiece for IEBC [Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission], when the tallying process changed from electronic to manual to I don’t know what with glaringly obvious flaws…no one spoke…egged on by the politicians who had [a] stake in our silence.” As veteran correspondent Michela Wrong put it, “It sometimes feels as though a zombie army has taken up position where Kenya’s feisty media used to be, with local reporters going glaze-eyed through the motions.”

But several local journalists told me that the press is coming out of its stupor, and that the sometimes-overly-cautious reporting during the sensitive election period would soon dissipate. “I think things are, at least slowly, moving back to normal,” Nation reporter Carlos Mureithi said.

Another question for Kenya’s media going forward is whether new regulations on “hate speech” will manifest in Internet controls and other forms of censorship. In a bid to quell tensions during the election period, the government launched a media-monitoring department to track social media users and pundits who resorted to ethnic slurs. There was a clear need to address this. As the Kenyan Editor’s Guild Chairman Macharia Gaitho wrote recently in the Nation, “This violence is not being fought on bloody streets; it is warfare waged on the pristine, modern, middle-class avenues of Twitter and Facebook.” To address this, the monitoring committee and the Communication Commission of Kenya are planning to draft legislation that would require Internet service providers to assist authorities in tracking down the origins of inappropriate messages, according to news reports.

But the government has not stated who defines hate speech nor how they plan to react to it. Asked at the press conference last week, Ndemo concurred that there is no concrete definition. “It has to be a consistent patter directed at someone or some ethnic group,” he said. Such vague terms bring to mind places where sweeping terminology has allowed authorities to suppress critical reporting–such as Rwanda, where “genocide denial” is illegal, and Ethiopia, where extremely broad usage of the term “terrorism” has resulted in harsh prison terms for several independent journalists. Press freedom group Article 19 has done some research on the subject and hopes to work with the government to establish a system to quell online hate speech without unnecessary censorship. “It is important that the government determines what is offensive speech and differentiate that with dangerous speech,” Article 19’s East and Horn of Africa director, Henry Maina, told me.

Alex Gakuru, chairman of the ICT Consumer’s Association of Kenya and a long-time advocate for online free speech, suggested authorities must tread carefully. “Several things justified the government to take action against spreading hateful online messages–it was good during the election,” Gakuru said. “But that does not mean it’s a blank check and should be embedded as a permanent thing.”