The Kenyan government withdraws advertising when newspapers step out of line
By Alan Rusbridger
In some parts of the world, it is still possible to silence a journalist with a sharp blow to the side of the head. But as newspapers the world over struggle with the financial disruption of digital technologies, governments are finding new ways of controlling the press. Murder is messy. Money is tidy.
John Kituyi, a brave, persistent local newspaper editor in Kenya, was a victim of the old-fashioned method in April 2015, when the 63-year-old from Eldoret in western Kenya was killed while preparing to publish the results of an investigation that could have embarrassed leading figures in the national government.
Two assailants with a blunt object brought Kituyi’s life, the story and the newspaper itself to a sudden end.
Though the threat of such physical violence remains a concern for journalists even in one of Africa’s most developed nations, a less messy mechanism for constraining the free media is increasingly being used. Murder can lead to awkward questions, and if the victim is a journalist or a lawyer, may attract uncomfortable international attention. But as revenues drain away from traditional media due to the inroads of digital technologies, the use of financial-induced self-censorship, or “fiscing,” can also ensure that journalists are more “reasonable” in their reporting.
Whether that was the actual motive when the Kenyan government in 2015 set up a single government agency to act as a conduit for all advertising in the country’s newspapers, enabling a centralized body to turn the flow of money on or off, journalists in Kenya tell CPJ that the country’s political classes are ensuring that “unhelpful” coverage will be effectively penalized, i.e. that the money will dry up.
Like their counterparts around the world, Kenyan newspapers are feeling the punishing economic consequences of readers and revenues moving online. Media income from all Kenyan government sources is estimated by newspaper executives to represent at least 25 percent of advertising revenue — or would, if the government actually paid the bills. In fact, the new advertising agency is not paying the bills. The failure of the money to arrive is, according to Tom Mshindi, editor in chief of the country’s most influential newspaper, the Nation, “putting a huge amount of stress on our bottom lines, our operational, our cash flows and everything else.” The second largest newspaper group in Kenya, the Standard, issued a profit warning in August 2015 predicting a 25 percent fall in revenues. Other papers are also seeing sharply declining revenues.
Mshindi’s former colleague at the Nation, Linus Gitahi, who had been CEO for nine years when he left in 2015, is no longer involved in the media business, but says he is well aware of how fiscing works. Waving his wallet in the air from side to side, he says, “Oh, you’re the guy who had that headline yesterday and you want us to talk advertising this morning? Tell it to the birds.”
“If they tell you two or three times, then you begin to think a little harder about the headline you put in, and, on the extreme side, you might even ask them, ‘What headline will make us get back to normal?'” Gitahi says.
This is the art of fiscing: No one directly censors anyone. The newspapers respond to the potential withholding of revenue by censoring themselves.
Since independence, Kenya has at times been something of a beacon of free speech in Africa, but David Makali, a former director of the Media Institute in Nairobi and a prominent commentator on the press, compares the present situation with the era of former President Mwai Kibaki (“a bit oppressive, but subtle”) and that of Daniel Arap Moi (“brutal suppression”).
Today, Makali says, “These new guys have basically taken to co-opting journalists. They’ve perfected the art of censorship because they intervene at the very inside using the state levers of advertising and manipulation through resources to make sure that you won’t publish anything they don’t like. You publish, the sanctions are immediate.”
According to Makali, “If you are not in the good books with the government, they throttle you. They’ve done that successfully. So they combine direct intimidation, economic strangulation and infiltration. They respond with a hammer, withdrawing support to newspapers, and this intimidation has completely devastated journalism, the standards that we are used to — and we had quite some good standards of investigative reporting.” Today, rather than a watchdog that barks in warning, “We have a media that is basically squeaking,” he says.
One attraction of fiscing is that it is difficult to prove that a newspaper self-censored as a result of financial pressure. That star journalist who didn’t have their contract renewed? A government spokesman will shrug his shoulders and say it has nothing to do with him. Most, though not all, editors are too proud to admit that they will quietly suppress a particular story for fear of losing revenues.
But high profile editorial figures have been dispatched from their jobs in recent months following work that did not please Kenya’s highest level of government, known as State House. As a result, important stories remain untold or neglected.
Kituyi is not the only member of the media to have lost his life, yet senior journalists, many of whom were granted anonymity during interviews, confess that they now soft-peddle investigations they think the government will disapprove of for less physically menacing reasons. In short, they concede that fiscing is working.
The health of the Kenyan media matters particularly on a continent where truly free speech is rare and becoming rarer still. The journalism coming out of Nairobi since independence in 1963 has often been robust and relatively unfettered. Compare the country’s newspapers even today with those in the neighboring countries in the region and the Kenyan press still shines, if not as brightly. There is a fairly new constitution and, until now, a Supreme Court willing to take account of it.
But ask Denis Galava, a former senior editor at the Nation, about how he lost his job after writing a New Year editorial that displeased State House. Talk to Gado, one of the world’s most trenchant cartoonists, who learned that his contract at the Nation was not renewed this year after he upset politicians in Kenya and beyond. Sit down with Robert Wanjala Kituyi and hear him recall in a whispered voice the investigation that led to his own harassment and his brother’s murder. Ask editors and reporters why almost no one in the Kenyan media has aggressively sought answers over military reverses against the jihadist terror group Al-Shabaab. A picture emerges of a press that is feeling economically uncertain and editorially intimidated, a situation that has worsened since CPJ found in a 2015 special report that Kenyan leaders were not upholding their commitment to freedom of the press.
In this constricting media environment, fiscing is the new form of intimidation. According to Eric Oduor, secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists, the Jubilee government, which took its name from the 50th anniversary of independence and has been led by Uhuru Kenyatta since 2013, “is quite smart in how it is doing its affairs but, more or less, they’re just doing what [former President] Moi used to do, only that, given that it’s a new era and maybe this is a modern society, they are not doing it in a crude way, the way Moi would do… They deny media houses revenue from advertising. They are, basically, trying to tell the media that you either do what we want, or we shut you down. Exactly, that is what is happening.”
A leading editor who asked not to be named says, “This government is very hyper-sensitive here about criticism. They’re in a very dominant position, and they’re trying to roll back a lot of the constitutional reforms and centralize government and strengthen the executive presidency, so it has made for difficult times. I would think that all the newspapers have pulled in their horns, to some extent.”
The government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism has its roots in the 2010 decision of the International Criminal Court, or ICC, to prosecute the current president, Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto, over the violence that erupted following the 2007 elections. The troubles broke out after Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga was denied victory under controversial circumstances. He was on course to win the election – but, at the eleventh hour, and to general disbelief, Mwai Kibaki was announced the victor.
The official death toll in the violence was put at 1,200 people, with 500,000 people displaced. In the subsequent ICC investigation, then-deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta faced five counts of crimes against humanity, including inciting murder and rape. Ruto was charged with being an “indirect co-perpetrator” with members of the Kalenjin ethnic group in murder, deportation, torture and persecution in and around his hometown of Eldoret.
U.S. President Barack Obama lent his support to the charges, urging Kenya’s leaders to cooperate fully with the ICC investigation. Once in power, post-2013, Kenyatta and Ruto had other ideas. They not only rejected all the allegations but denounced the ICC as “the toy of imperial powers.” The case eventually collapsed after many witnesses withdrew or, in some cases, disappeared or died. According to the ICC, no fewer than 17 witnesses against Ruto alone withdrew their testimony.
How did the Kenyan media cover this situation? Initially, the Nation supported the ICC, declaring in a 2010 editorial: “No one has ever come as close as [ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo] to slaying the dragon of impunity in Kenya.”
But once Kenyatta and Ruto came to power in 2013, the story became more difficult to cover.
“The view, which we put in our editorials, was these are legal proceedings, let them go to their logical conclusion,” says then-editor of the Nation, Joseph Odindo. “If you’re cleared, we’re happy, we’ll celebrate with you as our president. If you’re found guilty, then deal with the consequences but don’t try to sabotage the legal process; it shows a disrespect for the law. Now, the fact that the media did not stand with them and did not support their efforts all became a source of a grudge, for both of them. “
John-Allan Namu, an investigative reporter who set up an online-based independent investigative operation after leaving Kenya Television Network, says of the stories of witness disappearances, interference and murder: “If told definitively… it would be one of the most explosive stories yet, considering how many people died in the post-election violence. But who is this person who is going to go up against the president and the deputy president in trying to prove, or trying to just get to the true facts of what happened?”
One editor who was interested in getting to the facts was John Kituyi, who started his own newspaper, the Weekly Mirror, in Eldoret after becoming frustrated over stories that never saw the light of day at his previous employers. His persistence in investigating corporate power had landed him in jail for months for criminal libel in 2005 after he wrote about alleged human rights violations at a factory. Kituyi employed his brother, Robert, who was nearly 30 years his junior, to investigate the case against Ruto, even though the elder Kituyi and Ruto had once been close friends.
To try to get to the bottom of the story, I meet Robert Kituyi for lunch at an Italian restaurant in a shopping mall near the centre of Nairobi. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt bearing the words “I’m an ACTIVIST and proud of it.” It is a feature of Nairobi’s geography that the restaurant – which is otherwise typical of those found in any European capital — is 10 minutes away from the Kibera slum, where 200,000 people live mostly without electricity, fresh water, or sewerage.
Robert eats little as he embarks on a long narrative about how he and his brother–whom he insists on calling “my editor”–patiently catalogued the proceedings of the ICC case against the most powerful politician in the region. Softly spoken anyway, he drops his voice to barely more than a whisper as he tells the story of how the two men orchestrated the ICC coverage.
Robert’s investigations led him to visit the ICC headquarters in The Hague to inquire more closely of the prosecution team about aspects of the case they were building against Kenyatta, Ruto, and others. Each story they ran was met with complaints, and John would regularly tell Robert “people are not happy about it… the Kalenjin tribe are not happy with what we are saying.
“It was not an environment that allowed one to operate freely,” Robert Kituyi says. “The community was getting hostile, but we kept going. My editor would tell us: ‘I survived the harshest years of Moi, you guys are lucky. We have space for freedom of expression. So he kept pushing us, he kept reassuring us that, so long as your articles were factual, he’d stand by us. That’s what kept us going–that reassurance.”
There came a point in the ICC investigation when the prosecutors said they would consider using evidence from witnesses who had dropped out of the case. Robert was intrigued about what this meant for the likelihood of convicting Ruto. He says he was in close contact with a former Nation journalist, Walter Barasa, for whom the High Court of Kenya, in cooperation with the ICC, issued an arrest warrant in August 2013 which claimed that he had tried to corrupt three ICC witnesses. In May 2014, Kenya’s Court of Appeal blocked the arrest warrant on the basis that it was an abuse of judicial discretion, saying the High Court had barred Barasa from presenting certain pieces of evidence as well as an oral argument on his behalf.
As Robert pursued the story, he says he began receiving serious threats on his life. Two strangers approached him in a restaurant in late December 2013 and told him to back off the story, adding that they knew where his kids went to school and how to find his wife. A few days later he was again warned off the story by two other strangers. Both groups claimed to be from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation but did not produce IDs, he contends.
A few days later, when Robert was out shopping with his wife in Eldoret, he realized he was being followed. He says he tried to report the situation to the local police but that they refused to take his statement. By now he was seriously frightened and left town for a week.
Robert lowers his voice even further as he tells of another attempt to report his fears. When a policeman texted him to set up a meeting, he wondered: Was it a trap? They eventually met. The policeman, who was from another district, advised him “as a brother” to leave town immediately. Robert said he did not need persuading, and relocated his family to Nairobi. “Many citizens in Eldoret fear Ruto a lot,” he whispers. “Even the police officers fear the deputy president. They really fear him because he’s one of those basically powerful people in the region.”
Robert continued to cover the story from a distance. In late 2014, Meshack Yebei, an ICC witness whom Robert had interviewed, disappeared and a mutilated body was found shortly afterward in a river in Nandi County, some 500 kilometers northwest of Nairobi. His ears had been chopped off, his eyes gouged out, his tongue cut off, and his genitals severed. The Star reported that he had been abducted by people who pretended to be ICC investigators in SMS messages to his mother and a friend.
Robert’s reaction, he says, was, “Wow, that was so close.”
The body was identified by relatives. But in a further twist to the story, the identity of the body was contested and, according to John Kituyi, who spoke with mortuary attendants, had been switched with another body. A body that was purportedly Yebei later turned up near Mombasa. John Kituyi resolved to set out this narrative of alleged witness interference in two pieces in consecutive editions of the Weekly Mirror at the end of April 2015.
The first story hit the streets on April 25. The next day, John Kituyi told his younger brother that it had upset people, and he then set about preparing his second story. The two men spoke again on April 29. It was their last conversation.
At 8 p.m. the following evening, Robert received a call from one of his sisters telling him that his brother was dead. By the time Robert got to his older brother’s laptop in the newspaper office in Eldoret, the hard drive was missing. His brother’s head and two front teeth had been smashed by something heavy and lethal, and the final story had disappeared. Soon afterward, the newspaper closed. More than a year later, there has been little progress in the case. A man allegedly in possession of John Kituyi’s SIM card has pleaded not guilty to robbery.
The case against Ruto was finally dropped in April 2016. The Gambia-born ICC prosecutor in charge of the case, Fatou Bensouda, admitted that the ICC was ill prepared for protecting witnesses in such situations.
“It became very complicated in the end,” Bensouda said in a June 2016 interview. “Not only were the witnesses pulled away from the case, but there were even attempts at interfering with their family members… If you are going to protect witnesses against the whole community they come from, that is quite a challenge.”
For Robert Kituyi, who dares not return to Eldoret, the fear lives on. “If they’re going to kill, they will come,” he says quietly. “I’m a believer of God, we will meet the true judge–God himself. That’s all.”
I ask Robert if he has been widely interviewed by his fellow Kenyan journalists. He shakes his head. “I will tell you this, I have talked to many journalists after this killing and they will tell you they do not want to do stories like this. They say there’s no story worth my life.”
Godfrey Mwampembwa, who goes by the name Gado, is the best-known cartoonist in East Africa. Tanzanian by birth, he abandoned studies as an architect after entering a cartoon competition run by the Nation in Nairobi. He joined the paper in 1992 and has been ridiculing politicians for the Nation, and for its sister paper, the East African, ever since. “He’s a very brilliant cartoonist, probably second only to Zapiro in South Africa,” says one envious rival editor.
Gado’s trademark is to find a visual gag (often very offensive) to identify his subjects. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the founding President, Jomo, was a young, inexperienced politician when he first took office, so Gado drew him in diapers and with a feeding bottle.
When the ICC pressed charges against Kenyatta and Ruto, Gado began caricaturing the president and deputy president with a penal ball and chain attached to their ankles. After Ruto was caught up in a property scandal and claimed that the land in question was owned by Sikh businessmen, Gado began depicting him in a Sikh turban.
Other Gado cartoons caused offense. Ruto failed to see the joke when Gado pictured him aboard a private jet, “the hustler’s jet,” being pampered by four beautiful women. Ruto, again depicted with his ball and chain while being massaged, had been on a whirlwind tour of African capitals trying to whip up opposition to the ICC.
Then, in January 2015, Gado drew a cartoon of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in a similar pose, surrounded by beautiful women, three of whom were labeled Cronyism, Incompetence, and Corruption.
Gado, a stylish, striking man with a white-flecked beard, wears a multi-colored, checked scarf draped over his shoulders when we meet for coffee in a central Nairobi hotel, and he smiles broadly as he discusses such troublemaking cartoons.
“Cartoons are always seen as a barometer of a free press,” he says. “A drawing can say things that are not easy to say using other mediums. You know, you can always get cartoonists to tell you ‘Up you’ in a way that probably an editorial editor would not.”
That, he thinks, has particular importance in Africa. “Just being able to put that mirror and say, ‘This is how you look.’ In Africa, we are coming from a culture whereby the leaders are used to being clapped. Leaders are not used to being criticized and laughed at… It’s one of those mediums that really says, ‘Look, you can actually speak your mind and you can actually criticize leaders, and it is fair to do so.’ And by doing that, you are actually really standing up for lots of other people.”
But Gado has found that this freedom in Kenya is not what it once was. He has always been accustomed to pressure from the political classes, but says that editors in the past defended him, even if they sometimes asked him to drop a particular visual gag.
“The paper was always behind me, even when I’ve been sued for libel,” he says. “We’ve always had, like, negotiations. An editor might say, ‘Look, Gado, why don’t you just go easy on these guys’, you know, ‘just give it a while.'” We developed a relation that was very workable with my editors. At the time, they never ordered me to do anything. If a cartoon was more sensitive and they’ve dropped it, I’ve used it online. I didn’t mind that. I understood the background and where we had come from.”
Gado’s former editor, Joseph Odindo, confirms this pattern of behavior, and says he eventually persuaded Gado to drop the baby diapers for Kenyatta. “We got complaints about that. So I persuaded him to come up with another image, because, actually, to be fair, it was not relevant anymore. He had grown in politics, he was no longer an acolyte of Moi and he had managed to be president. “
Odindo, who is an experienced old hand at journalism now editing at the rival Standard, confirms there were further complaints about the depiction of the ball and chain. “Now that became an issue, it was, ‘We were making fun of a very serious situation,’ and again they didn’t like it. The message was clear: ‘Look, this is not a laughing matter.’ I had a long battle with Gado over that [and] he eventually abandoned it.”
After the hustler jet cartoon, Odindo says, “The deputy president was mad, he was angry. They sent messages. They actually called about it. He was not happy, but it was factual; it was true, right. And the cartoon just rubbed the salt on the wound, but he never forgot.”
Also, Gado says, “I started getting feedback from editors: ‘Look, they don’t really like this chains and balls you do, they are not very happy about it.’ And I had reached a point whereby Odindo actually had to sit me down and say, ‘Look, I think I’ve reached the end of the road here, Gado, I think the board has intervened.'”
Gado says he also received phone calls from Ruto’s press secretary protesting the use of the Sikh turban. When he continued to draw it, the calls went to his editorial bosses, including the CEO. He also believes the group chairman was called.
“Did Ruto complain? Yes, he did,” confirmed the former CEO, Linus Gitahi. “Did Uhuru complain? Yes. Did they complain about other things? Absolutely, for nine years, and Gado did a lot of bad things in the nine years, really, a lot of bad things. And actually, if there is a guy who kept me awake at night from politicians, it’s Gado, because he kind of just used to get them at the sweet spot, bad.”
But what did it for Gado in the end was the Jakaya Kikwete cartoon. The Tanzanian government’s response to the satire on its president was swift and sharp: It banned the East African from distribution in the country, claiming to have suddenly discovered that the paper was unregistered.
The Nation‘s initial response was to defend the cartoon, with the chairman, Wilfred Kiboro, denouncing the ban as “unfair and undemocratic.” But behind the scenes, the reaction was less robust.
Linus Gitahi faced a dilemma. The paper had 40 employees in Tanzania. Did he ditch them or “deal with Gado?” His solution was to offer Gado a year off on paid leave. “I told Gado, ‘this guy is literally asking for your head, right? What we do is we give him your head, in the sense that we give you a study leave. If there was ever a time you wanted to write a book, this is it.'”
Gado was not displeased to be allowed a full-paid yearlong break. Within a week of the cartoon appearing, the East African published a groveling apology for depicting the Tanzanian president in “a bad light.” The drawing “should not have been published except for a rare lapse in our otherwise rigorous gatekeeping process,” the editorial noted.
Honor was satisfied. But it was eight months before the East African was allowed back on the streets of Dar es Salaam. And Gado had an unpleasant shock in store.
During Gado’s absence from cartooning, relations between the government and the press hardened. The next flare-up came at the 2016 New Year, while Gado was on his forced sabbatical. This time, the problem was an editorial in the Saturday edition of the Nation.
The offending piece, an editorial known as a “leader” and framed as a personal letter to Kenyatta, was written by Denis Galava, a soft-spoken, erudite 41-year-old who had worked in a variety of senior executive positions, including editorial writer, since joining the Nation in 2010. In the absence of senior editors, many of whom were on holiday, Galava says, he discussed the theme with colleagues before writing it on Friday.
The piece, which Galava said took him about 30 minutes to write, began bluntly: “Your Excellency, 2015 was a bad year for Kenya. All the pillars of our nationhood were tested and most were found wanting. Some collapsed, some were seriously weakened, while others were desecrated beyond repair.”
Galava says other colleagues read the editorial before it was printed. He thought little about it before going home. He’d written more critical editorials and four New Year leaders before. This one didn’t seem a particularly big thing.
His mood changed the following morning after the editorial started to trend on social media. “My senior colleagues began calling me and saying that the board chairman is livid,” Galava says. His colleagues told him that people from State House had been demanding to know who had written the editorial. “They were asking, ‘You tell us who was working yesterday, who’s this trying to sabotage us?'”
According to Galava, his colleagues told him that State House was threatening to speak to the Aga Khan, an important Shia religious leader and the main shareholder in the Nation. By Monday, Galava had received a call from a friend in State House: “Denis,” Galava recalls the person saying, “I’m really sorry to tell you this, that editorial, you are going to be suspended at least–but you are toast, it’s really unfortunate.”
It was unusual, to say the least, for a journalist to be informed of his impending defenestration by a government official, and before the newspaper had even convened an inquiry into what had happened. But the prediction turned out to be accurate: Galava was, indeed, toast.
Galava soon heard that his editors were describing the editorial as “a rogue act.” Within days, the CEO of the Nation was on the BBC comparing Galava with a bank teller who steals money when his seniors were not around. Galava was sacked. He is now suing the company for wrongful dismissal.
The Nation‘s current editor-in-chief, Tom Mshindi, says he is reluctant to be drawn into the case because of the forthcoming legal action, but he denies receiving any calls complaining about the article and says, “Just suffice it to say that there were some procedural things that were not followed in terms of the way we do clearances on matters that are published and, particularly, very sacrosanct things like editorials.”
One former Nation editor, who asked not to be named, says there is no way the paper would have sacked Galava unless someone complained. “When the shit hits the fan, you’ve got to stand together,” the person said.
Another rival editor, who likewise asked not to be named, believes that if Galava had simply criticized the government he would have survived. His mistake was to have addressed his criticism at the president.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, a former managing editor of the Nation, says he was astonished that his old paper chose to name Galava as the writer of the anonymous editorial leader. “For you to then somehow detach yourself from that responsibility, I mean, that was disastrous. I have never seen anything like that,” he says.
The Nation is still a very profitable newspaper, earning US$22 million in profits after taxes in 2015, down from $27 million the previous year. But, as with all newspapers, circulation is falling. Galava reckons the Daily Nation (the weekday edition) is now selling around 130,000 copies compared with 170,000 to 180,000 in 2013. Gitahi believes the newspaper has three to five years before digital disruption begins to seriously bite into its revenues.
As traditional revenues decline, the leverage of government increases. “There’s no way Nation, or any media house in this country, can survive without government advertising,” says David Makali.
Many observers of the Kenyan media scene believe further pressure is being brought to bear on the Nation via the Aga Khan, who bought the paper in 1959 and still owns 38 percent of the stock.
For decades the Aga Khan, who has diplomatic status, was treated like a head of state whenever he visited Nairobi. In addition to the Nation, he has numerous other business interests in Kenya and is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community – the world’s second largest Shia community, which regards the Aga Khan as the 49th direct descendent of the prophet and, in Kenya, includes a prominent thousands-strong business network.
When the new Jubilee government came to power in 2013, many people began to notice a difference in how the Aga Khan was treated. It was rumored that he was kept waiting for a long time before being granted an appointment to see the new president, that the government cancelled a number of privileges that he had previously enjoyed, and that Ismaili businesses had begun to feel unwanted pressures and attention from government.
One veteran editor says the new government decided to play hardball. “It’s hard to bend the Nation to a point where it would subordinate its journalism totally to the government’s interest,” he says. “The government can put pressure on the Nation through these other interests of the Aga Khan and I think that’s what may have happened.”
The same editor praises the Aga Khan’s record on standing up to pressure, but says: “What’s at stake here are the interests of so many people who look up to him as a spiritual leader. And then what is causing all these problems? Media. The Nation used to be a huge contributor in the early years to the community’s coffers, but no longer.”
A rival editor reads the situation the same way: “I think the Aga Khan bows to pressure. And, you know, the thing about these guys here is they’re so tough and ruthless, and you saw the way they more or less destroyed the ICC. Kenya has really damaged the ICC, massively, and you know they just really play hardball… and they also played hardball with the Aga Khan.” Essentially, he says, the government put pressure on the ICC and the Aga Khan, who then put pressure on journalists.
Charles Onyango-Obbo agrees with that assessment. “My own sense is that the biggest source of pressure for journalists is around stories that cause problems with the Aga Khan’s business interests,” he says.
A representative of the Aga Khan, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed, saying, “Yes, there have been lots of unpleasant efforts through the years to influence the direction of Nation coverage–especially when the political climate has been as polarized as it has been in Kenya of late.” But, he added, “When the Aga Khan learns about any such pressures, from any source, he insists that they be taken directly to the independent board and management of the company. I do not recall a time when the Aga Khan has interfered with the Nation‘s independent editorial judgment.”
Galava has little doubt that the pressure on the Nation — both through advertising and on the Aga Khan’s wider interests — is being felt. “If you speak to people in the Aga Khan community, in the Ismaili community, they often will tell you why the Nation has become a liability.” He says that when he was managing editor, the staff was told by a senior executive, “I’m not telling you this to censor you but I’m just giving you the picture.”
“But the thing which is, which now everyone knows in Kenya whether inside or outside the Nation or the Standard or the Star, that you can’t touch the president. The consequences of touching the presidency are dire,” Galava says.
This hardening of the government mood was disturbing for Gado as he approached the end of his sabbatical. By then, both the former editor and the former CEO, Joseph Odindo and Linus Gitahi, had moved on. In February 2016, just a month after Galava’s suspension, Gado was told he wasn’t wanted back at the Nation. He says colleagues told him he had been “marked.” His 23-year career with the Nation was over.
Mshindi, who broke the bad news to Gado, chooses his words carefully when asked about the decision to terminate Gado’s contract. “This is not a decision usually taken by one person; this was a collective decision that was taken by more than just one office, because he was a very senior person, I mean, at a certain level, people do get involved. I can’t just wake up, myself Tom, and start sacking editors. It’s not done that way.”
Does that mean that the decision was made by the editorial board? “Well, it’s a management decision,” Mshindi says. “The board is a policy making organ; it doesn’t come into these decisions.”
Asked if such a decision would normally fall under the purview of others, such as the CEO or chairman, he says, “Exactly, those kinds of people. I mean, especially the CEO and myself and, you know, HR.”
After his sacking, Gado–who is now back working for his old boss, Odindo, at the Standard–drew a cartoon titled “The Media Without Clothes,” which shows several identifiable naked Kenyan media executives scrambling for money in front of the regally clothed figures representing the president and vice president.
Asked to explain the drawing, he says, “They’re being compromised. They have abdicated their role. What you have is the president dishing out money and some people of the media sort of collecting the money… I challenge you that you can take that drawing and ask any journalist worth his salt about the state of play of the media in Kenya and probably you would have 90 percent among them who said, ‘Yeah, that’s what’s happening.'”
The firings of Gado and Galava, combined with fiscing, have affected staff morale at the Nation, and one very senior executive says, on condition of anonymity, that the newspaper has had to plead with the government’s advertising authority to be paid the money they’re owed. “Inevitably, it has an impact on stories,” he says. “The guys on the second floor [the commercial department, which includes advertising] come along and say, ‘These stories you are writing are making it hard for us.”’
Once newspaper management appeared to give into government pressure, the belief spread that stories critical of the corporate world would be similarly unwelcome. All the editors and senior executives I’ve spoken with, for example, say they would not think of running a negative story about Kenya’s largest corporation, Safaricom, for fear of losing advertising revenues.
The senior Nation editor says: “We’re retrenching, so there’s no security of jobs any more. Everyone understands there are no jobs out there. If the government paid us what they owed us, then that would help. But the message goes out loud and clear… go easy on government and corporates. Reporters get the message. They understand what stories are off limits so they go for safer stories.”
Officials with the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) readily admit that the agency owes media houses a great deal of money. Dennis Chebitwey, director of public communications at the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, who runs the GAA, estimates the agency owes media houses more than 5 million pounds, adding, “But that will be paid.” The Nation‘s Tom Mshindi estimates the debts could actually be up to twice that sum. Chebitwey insists he has never called an editor either to complain about coverage or to influence the way they report.
On January 15, 2016, Al-Shabaab militants attacked and overran a Kenyan army base in the town of El-Adde in Somalia — one of Kenya’s largest military defeats since independence in 1963. Yet the only public acknowledgement of casualties has been the publication of photos of the return of four flag-draped caskets. There have been no published accounts in Kenya of how many Kenyans were really killed in the raid or whether, as some international journalists have reported, Kenyan commanders ignored warnings and were ill-prepared for the attack.
In a self-congratulatory video posted to YouTube, Al-Shabaab claimed that more than 100 Kenyans were killed. Other accounts, including from the Somalia government, placed the death toll at between 180 and 200.
The lack of coverage is baffling to many reporters. “It’s a huge story… it was a time of huge crisis for the military, forget the human cost for a moment, big as it is,” says John-Allan Namu, the former TV news journalist who set up an online-based independent investigative operation. “Think about what it means for the esteem with which we hold our military, even going down to the reasons why we went in.”
Mshindi, at the Nation, says he wishes the government would be more forthcoming, but defends his own paper’s reticence, adding, spikily: “You guys sit in Washington and Paris, and you can report these things with a certain degree of, I don’t want to use the word ‘casualness,’ but ‘distance.’ You can throw around any numbers that you want to throw around. I cannot do that. “
Namu believes some of his colleagues have held back for fear of being seen as unpatriotic. But he also thinks some journalists fear that they’d be targeted if they do — “perhaps not physically targeted but, you know, be the source of isolation, attacks by people who are supportive of the government, so called ‘patriots,’ and that can be tough for a journalist to be able to walk it alone, even though your facts speak for themselves.” He recalls his editors being extremely uncomfortable about the coverage of terrorism. “From early on we found out that it’s because they were constantly under pressure from government to have these stories not told, and have a more patriotic theme around the coverage of terror attacks. Our CEO told us the kind of calls that he was getting, from who, which offices, and basically what he was being told.”
Odindo says that “in private discussion with generals, they would tell us that, look, El-Adde was just mismanaged, totally mismanaged, the commander slept on the job. But they couldn’t be quoted officially, and you are not on the front line, so you can’t say that. The closest we came to it was quoting the Somali president, who had to eventually apologize to the Kenya government and withdraw. Now that’s a foreign head of state. What would they have done to a media house which had no proof?”
My first opportunity to ask for an official figure comes when I meet with State House spokesperson Manoah Esipisu, a former Reuters reporter who studied journalism at City University in London. Dressed in a grey sweater, he tilts back in his chair in an office on the first floor of the whitewashed former official colonial residence of the governor of East Africa. The room is dominated by five television screens on which he can monitor multiple Kenyan TV channels at once. Today only one is on, showing a Nigerian “Nollywood” soap opera.
Esipisu begins by extolling the strengths of the Kenyan media, together with the government’s firm belief in freedom of expression. “We are certainly the most open society in our region and we are certainly one of the most open, if not the most open, on the continent,” he says. “We have a long history of a strong, if sometimes activist, media, and it is something that both the media and ourselves would like to protect. “
Asked how he defines the term “activist,” he says, “Sometimes the media takes on causes fairly quickly, some justly, some, in our view, unjustly,” then adds, “The views that we think are unjust, that’s what we think is activist.”
Nearly every journalist I have met since arriving in Nairobi considers the current president and deputy president extremely thin-skinned. Esipisu flatly contradicts this: “Here, at the presidency, certainly, we don’t really mind criticism, however harsh, provided it is reasoned out. So if you tell me I’m a piece of shit, you need to say how you’ve come to that conclusion so that when I read the stuff, I understand truly they wouldn’t have gotten to any other conclusion but the one they got to.”
I ask him about the charge that the GAA is being used to put pressure on media houses. He acknowledges that perception is out there, but insists it would be “foolhardy” for any government to behave in that way. The reality, he says, is more mundane: The government has a huge budget deficit and the GAA is not the only official department struggling to pay its bills.
We move onto the sacking of Gado. Esipisu denies the government caused it, and distances himself, in words that seem to have been carefully chosen, from the idea that this had anything to do with pressure from government. “I haven’t seen any evidence of such pressure, even though I have heard stories of that pressure,” he says. “I think that it is easy to say ‘State House did this’… but, ultimately, it comes to proof. I mean, this building doesn’t make phone calls, people do. The administration did not ask for his sacking.”
“Did the administration complain about him?”
“Actually, no… Of course, this does not preclude the fact that people, privately, might have called people that had their friends within the newsrooms and said, ‘Oh what’s this type of stuff we are seeing?’ or ‘What direction are you guys going?’ I think you can’t preclude the fact that people will call others they know in newsrooms in just the same way I would call him and say, ‘Look, geez, this thing I saw on Saturday, you guys are crazy,’ something like that. But is that exacting any pressure? I wouldn’t say so.”
What about the sacking of Denis Galava?
Esipisu becomes more assertive, claiming that Galava replaced an editorial that was already typeset and ready to print – something that no one in the Nation‘s management has said.
“Galava did what people, ordinarily, don’t do in a newsroom, replacing an editorial that is already plated without consultation — that’s what I hear,” Esipisu says. “But would I ask that he be fired for that? No, I wouldn’t. That’s an internal management thing. If you publish stuff that you can’t stand by, that’s a problem.”
He says he has never known of a case where a newspaper has been involved in a public discussion about who wrote a particular editorial. “And so, if I was furious, I’m furious with the newspaper, I’m not furious with the leader writer, I wouldn’t know who the leader writer was… so I would say those are internal governance lapses, for which somebody has had to take responsibility, rather than pressure from the outside.”
Were there, in fact, calls from State House over the editorial? “I wouldn’t say whether, I don’t know whether — I can’t speak for everyone,” Esipisu says. “I can truly say, since I speak for the president, I’m sure he did not make any such calls in relation to that article.” He added, “If you ask my personal reaction, was I angry? Yes, I was. You can attack people but you still must be respectful. If you have argued a case properly, no one is going to worry about what the issues are, you have argued the case. A leader is not a forum for abuse, especially for a head of state. So, yeah, as the president’s spokesperson, I had a view. That view was not expressed.”
When the interview moves on to Kenyan casualties at El-Adde, Esipisu loses his fluency for the first time and shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Asked how many Kenyans died, he says, “I don’t have a number, it’s the Department of Defence.” Can he provide a rough idea? “I have no rough idea,” he says. “I know that they have said. No, they haven’t said how many people died, they have told us there might have been two companies and I don’t know how many died. I don’t know how many survived, so I can’t say that on the record.”
I suggest that some have put the number of fatalities at from 180 to 200.
“The Kenyan Government has never given a figure for the deaths in El-Adde,” he says.
How could the government possibly have no idea of the number killed? “The Ministry of Defence must have its reasons, and I defer to them,” he says. “I don’t know the figures.” Asked what reasons the ministry might have, he moves around in his chair again. “I haven’t taken a view on that,” he says. “The ministry has said it’s got good reasons, so, if the Kenya Defence Forces say this is what would be good for us, we go with what they are saying, in terms of what they think would be useful for the team’s morale, and the fact that they remain in those spaces.”
The legal framework in Kenya has always represented an uncomfortable challenge for journalists, with many complaining about the use of libel laws, including criminal ones, to suppress their work. But the Jubilee government has, since 2013, tried to introduce further laws and regulatory mechanisms that could, if fully implemented, further erode the ability of the media to aggressively report.
On January16, 2016, Joseph Nkaissery, the Interior cabinet secretary – which is essentially the national security minister — ordered the arrest of anyone circulating photographs or video of the el-Adde attack. Several bloggers were briefly detained following this edict.
The Security Law Amendment Act (SLAA), part of which was ruled unconstitutional, would–if passed in full–severely restrict journalists’ ability to report on terrorism. Another proposed law, still being litigated in the courts, amending the Kenyan Information and Communications Act (KICA) would create a new media regulator with some members appointed by the government itself. Journalists may now face fines of up to 500,000 Kenyan shillings and media companies up to 20 million shillings if the new regulator finds them in breach of a government-directed code of conduct.
Both measures have been opposed by international free speech organizations and have been the subject of challenges in the courts. Parts of the SLAA were ruled unconstitutional by the High Court in February 2015; the same court ruled that aspects of the KICA and Media Council Act were constitutional on the grounds that they placed limitations on the reporting national security issues. Both judgments are currently being appealed.
Most of the editorial figures I speak with in Kenya say they are extremely anxious about the run-up to the next election in August 2017. “Now that we’re going into the elections, I think that political pressure is going to be open, very direct,” Odindo says.
Namu agrees. “I see that legislation as being open for abuse, especially at very sensitive times in our country’s progression,” he says. “In spite of its problems, the media still remains one of the more trusted institutions in the country. But institutions like the Supreme Court seem to have started to fall down a bit in terms of the credibility test. The electoral body has unanimously been declared by both sides of the political divide to be one that doesn’t stand the test of credibility. So you head into an election with all of this being unresolved after the five years of political tumult that we’ve had here. And you wonder whether the media won’t be targeted.”
While in Nairobi, I attend a street protest against the extra-judicial torture and killings of Willie Kimani, a young human rights lawyer, along with one of his clients and a taxi driver, sometime around June 23, 2016. Kimani’s skull and genitals were reportedly crushed. Numerous Kenyan lawyers, dressed in suits adorned with purple ribbons, turn out for the demonstration and subsequently go on strike for a week.
Perhaps because the entire legal system rebelled against these brutal killings, the murder was investigated and four police officers charged. But the talk at the demonstration is of impunity–the sense that, in Kenya today, no one ever faces the consequences of such brutality and murder. The non-governmental watchdog Independent Medico-Legal Unit reports that the Kenyan police killed 97 people in 2015 alone.
Charles Onyango-Obbo believes the collapse of the ICC case against the country’s two most powerful politicians showed that no one is really held accountable. “The post-election violence has ended without any [significant] convictions… and I’m just wondering what lesson that has sent,” he says. “I think the lessons most people seem to have taken away from that is that you can get away with it. And so, you know, going forward, I’d just like to say I don’t think the future looks promising.”
Linus Gitahi agrees. “Anything that’s happened to lawyers can happen to journalists — like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
A May 2016 High Court ruling on a new raft of government legislation affecting the media observed that Kenyan journalists were “not to put too fine a point on it, not angels.” More than one editorial commentator cautioned that the Kenyan press must take responsibility for some failings of its own. A Western observer of the Kenyan media who asks not to be named cautions against having too rosy a view of the incorruptibility of Kenyan journalists, and claims to have seen evidence of “brown envelopes” delivered to journalists who are on the take. David Makali tells me the political parties have spies and journalists on the payroll in all newsrooms. An editor in Nairobi agrees that this is likely.
State House’s Manoah Esipisu digs into his own experience at Reuters and observes that in his opinion, newsrooms are losing institutional memory. Investigative reporting and business reporting are in decline, and the reasons cannot all be laid at the government’s feet, he argues.
Wycliffe Muga, a columnist with a long personal memory of journalism, thinks government attempts to suppress the media are cyclical and that “in the end, the media always wins because as a collectivity we are much stronger than them.”
But that strength in the past relied on strong financial footing, which enabled newspaper managements to shrug off any attempts to influence editorial decisions by financial manipulation. Today, fiscing is one of many tools that can be used against the free media in Kenya, and in some cases, the mere potential for its use results in censorship.
The editors and reporters with whom I speak are divided over whether a degree of accommodation with the government is just a fact of life for journalists in contemporary Africa. One editor describes the compromise he struck after State House “went ballistic” over a story that was critical of the president. “They demanded a retraction,” says the editor, who, like many, fears being quoted by name, which is indicative of the state of the free media in Kenya and the potential for government repercussions. “They demanded an apology, they demanded who’d done it. We were told if we didn’t give them the source we would lose all government advertising. In the end, we said, ‘Look, we’re not going to do that, but we’ll give you a pledge that we will never again do that kind of personal, what might be interpreted as a personal criticism of the president, we won’t do those things.’ It was a deal.”
Joseph Odindo, who has seen a lot in his long career, agrees that there are unwritten laws. “Traditionally, the Kenyan media has always known that there was an invisible line which you don’t cross–or you cross at your peril,” he says. “And that’s with all previous governments we had. So part of the challenge of being an editor is knowing whether to cross, and, therefore, how you get around it, you publish without crossing that line.”
Linus Gitahi, who is generally admired by his former colleagues for the way he protected them, has a similar view. “Actually, in Africa you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to manage,” he says. “It’s a question of how you navigate the landscape.”
Namu recalls being told by a senior editor, “This is a great story, great story, but do not challenge the president.” He says “it was made clear to us, I’ll never forget those words.”
But can such accommodations survive the age of social media, where millions of ordinary Kenyans now have access to unmediated and largely still unregulated content? Charles Onyango-Obbo believes the old rules cannot survive much longer. “In the past, most of the editors would be people who have connections to the president, or ministers and, you know, a lot of these things could be ironed over quietly at a dinner, at the club. There has been a social change so that is no longer possible. I think it has become very, very, difficult to sustain with everyone seeing what they are seeing on social media or digital.”
Bloggers, including on a site called Owaahh, are getting noticed for investigations that are taking mainstream media by surprise. John-Allan Namu, who is 33, is part of the younger generation of Kenyans who have decided to move into new media to be able to work freely. “To be fair, our executives did try to defend us, but I think the pressure became too much,” he says. “I sort of made up my mind that, if I am going to be able to develop as a journalist, I can’t do it within the context of a mainstream media house.” Namu’s new venture, called Africa Uncensored, has eight employees and is supported by donors and supplemented by content sold to media houses.
“Part of our Kenyan culture, a resilience and a resistance to wrongdoing and to encroachment on rights–that hasn’t yet disappeared,” Namu says. “And, I mean, this country has so much potential. Geographically, alone, we are equidistant from so many places in the world. We have great weather. We’ve got a great service industry. But it’s our rulership and, you know, some of the vices in society that are holding us back. There are a lot of people who either want us to speak about it or are doing something about it themselves, so I’m hopeful.”
But in the end, Namu wonders how his little start-up will fare when “the rubber will meet the road and we have something that’s just untouchable.” He talks about the recent murder of Jacob Juma, a gadfly businessman and frequent user of social media who in January predicted his own death on Facebook for “my stand over corruption in gov’t.” He was shot 10 times as he drove home to a Nairobi suburb on May 5, 2016.
In the past, the financial strength of the mainstream media would have conferred a level of protection upon reporters, Muga believes. But now, many journalists working for large media groups feel less confident of protection and those on the outside feel very vulnerable.
The Kenya media–still, for all its frailties, a point of relative light in a troubled region–is discovering what it’s like when a government exploits the financial fragility of the press today. In that sense, Kenya may prove to be a different kind of beacon.
Alan Rusbridger was the editor of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015. He was editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, a member of the GNM and GMG Boards, and a member of the Scott Trust. In October 2015 he became principal of Lady Margaret Hall, a college in the University of Oxford.