Despite enjoying a reputation for a strong, established media, journalists in Kenya are facing significant challenges to their ability to report in the public interest. Economic uncertainty, political interference, skills and capacity gaps, and weak links with civil society all contribute.
These are some of the findings of a research report called Strengthening Kenyan Media: Exploring a Path Towards Journalism in the Public Interest. This report, published by Omidyar Network, hopes to inspire a holistic approach to strengthening independent media in Kenya.
An increasingly difficult environment
The challenges media organisations experience range from political interference, limitations to press freedom, open threats and intimidation and isolation of reporters and media houses. Most recently the Uhuru Kenyatta government took four television stations off the air after they refused to comply with a government order not to cover the ‘inauguration event’ of political opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Numerous media organisations have political entanglements, which influence their independence. The report states that dominant media organisations are owned by “either a politician, a close party affiliate or a business person with commercial interests that depend on politicians’ good graces”. Media organisations also face economic and legal pressures. Media have had to contend with declining commercial advertising revenue. In 2017 there were drastic cuts in government advertising, which affected many of the news organisations revenue.
There have also been regulatory and legal pressures. The Media Council of Kenya was established in 2010. It is an independent regulatory body tasked with setting media standards and regulating and monitoring compliance with those standards. After assuming power in 2012, Kenyatta’s government undermined their independence through a revision of a 2007 Media Act.
Government also became adept at using social media to circumvent media and reach citizens directly and manipulate public perception. It was widely reported that the government employed Cambridge Analytica, the company led by Steve Bannon that specialised in psychographic and data driven online political campaigns.
The report suggests that social media has been a positive force for independent voices, providing a new channel for Kenyans to express themselves, publicly pressure the government, and disseminate information not picked up by major news organisations. It cites coverage of the country-wide doctor’s strike which stretched for 100 days. In the absence of in-depth reporting by the dominant news organisations, social media was an important tool for doctors to air their grievances, while presenting a counter-narrative to that of the state.
Opportunities for change
The report suggests a range of opportunities for strengthing independent media in Kenya. Kenyan media need to establish a strong solidarity network. They need to speak out in once voice, for example when government targets individual journalists or media houses. Media houses should pass along promising leads to other colleagues to make a story public if they themselves feel unable to publish it, encouraging widespread coverage of an issue and making it difficult to retaliate against a single journalist or media house.
Journalists are experimenting with ways to hold government to account for its attacks on the press. This can be done by publicly naming those individuals who are issuing threats, this would “slow the government’s momentum”.
In covering news that break on social media, the report suggests journalists should work on adding value through fact-checking and more in-depth reporting to ensure news circulating online is credible. The Nation Media Group have established a fact-checking effort called “Newsplex”. Africa Check is another fact-checking organisation serving Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa and Kenya.
Supporting Kenyan independent media
The report offers a range of ideas for interventions to strengthen Kenyan media. They argue that media institutions need financing to free them from the dependence on commercial advertising, while they work to identify new business models. Journalists need assistance in becoming financially secure in order to insulate them from pay-to-play journalism. Reporting needs to be professionalised through well-designed training and mentorship. They also argue that journalists need to collaborate and work on insulating themselves from political influence, by helping to build a strong collective voice among themselves and with civil society to stand up to government challenges.
The writers suggest nine key interventions that could stengthen Kenyan meida and map them according to how impactful they could be and how much resources and effort interventions would require.
1. Designing the future of independent media
Before changes can be made to the Kenyan media landscape, they suggest convening journalists and media actors to discuss ways to shape the foundation of the future of Kenya’s independent media.
2. Hosting alternative media labs
A “media lab,” in the model of the Nieman Lab or MIT Civic Media Lab in America, could spark exciting new ventures in Kenya, and help surface promising journalists and other media entrepreneurs.
3. Opening new channels for independent publishing
Creating new spaces for journalists to publish their work, through international media distribution partnerships and/or by funding alternative Kenyan platforms.
4. Public interest storytelling
A 2016 law in Kenya requires 40 percent of content to be produced locally, which is creating incentives for media outlets. Supporters could take advantage of this moment by backing independent journalists to create new forms of public interest content in alternative mediums.
5. Grants for investigative journalism
Providing travel grants and reporting funds for journalists could help support investigative journalism.
6. Holistic support for capacity development
Providing well-designed trainings and mentorship opportunities, tailored to journalist demand, could fill urgent capacity gaps.
7. Connecting journalists and civil society organisation’s
The report argues that relationships between media and civil society should be strengthened — institutionalizing networks of trust and collaboration between CSOs and journalists.
8. Physical spaces for independent journalists
To address resource and skill gaps, particularly for young and freelance journalists, the report suggest donors could provide physical spaces where journalists can access desks, internet, computers, and phone lines. Opening spaces for independent journalists to gather, access the internet, and seek mentorship could provide physical security as well as professional support.
9. Solidarity response networks
Institutionalizing a “solidarity” network of journalists could increase safety, amplify calls against government intimidation, and support advocacy and legal efforts.
To download the full report, please visit: