By Muthoki Mumo
Kenyans are preparing to head to the polls August 9 for a national election that is predicted to be tightly contested. Deputy President William Ruto is vying for the presidency against main contender Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition figure who nonetheless has the backing of the current President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In 2017, Kenyan journalists were harassed and detained while covering a disputed general election. Now, the country’s press corps hopes to avoid a repeat of such incidents. But Kenya remains vulnerable to political turmoil, and there have already been incidents of violations against the press including the March 2022 assault of two journalists covering an event at Odinga’s party headquarters and journalists having been denied access while covering Ruto.
Between May and July, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) spoke with more than 50 Kenyan journalists and press freedom advocates about their concerns. They spoke of the risks of covering political rallies that could turn violent or even deadly and the normalisation of sexualised attacks against female reporters. Nearly all of them worried about “profiling”— when politicians and their supporters publicly brand individual journalists or media outlets as prejudiced in favor of the opponent. This accusation – whether based on real or perceived biases in coverage – leaves journalists vulnerable to attacks, Kenya’s media regulator said in a May statement.
Below, CPJ has published the views of six of these journalists and advocates representative of the concerns of the country’s press corps writ large ahead of the elections. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
CPJ also contacted representatives of Ruto and Odinga’s campaigns and their affiliated parties, as well as the country’s elections commission, for comment. Those responses are included after the journalists’ stories.
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William Oloo Janak, chairperson of the Kenya Correspondents Association, which represents about 600 Kenyan journalists
The political environment is increasingly hostile. We have seen statements recently from the Kenya Kwanza Alliance [the coalition of parties backing Ruto], labeling certain media houses as hostile to them. The media needs to be called out if they are not doing the right thing. But this is a delicate period. What we are worried about is the interpretation [of these statements] by supporters on the ground. The top leaders complaining about the bias will not attack the journalists. It is their supporters who, taking the cue from leaders, will begin to point at journalists, perhaps to attack journalists even. And the journalists are not quite ready [to deal with election-related attacks]. We have a huge group of young journalists. Many of them have not covered elections or have only covered one, and these are the statistics we are seeing among our membership countrywide. They don’t have institutional memory. The level of sensitivity to potentially volatile environments is very low.
Linus Kaikai, group editorial director of Royal Media Services (RMS), a privately owned national broadcaster
The problem journalists are facing right now is that of profiling. Profiling of journalists in election years is becoming an entrenched culture. [RMS] journalists are being profiled as favoring Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition [Odinga’s political coalition] for the simple reason that our chairman and proprietor [SK Macharia] has declared his preference and is actively taking part in the campaigns for Raila Odinga. He has made it very public. We have made repeated assertions and given the public assurances that the position of the chairman doesn’t affect our editorial leaning but it’s not accepted. There is concern about the issue of profiling because these politicians have their supporters. And what they do is they unleash them on our media houses. They unleash them on our specific journalists. It is a security concern for our teams out there because profiling amounts to a green card to supporters to proceed as they may wish. We’ve had to remove our branding from our journalists [covering a rally]. So no microphone that shows who we are. Because if you proceed with your identity all over the place, you do not know what supporters will do. The impact is that our teams move with fear.
Nicholas Kipchumba, a reporter with Kass Media Group, a national Kalenjin-language outlet broadcasting on radio, television, and reporting online
The critical aspect of the media debate now, and many may not actually be bold enough to acknowledge it, is that the media has taken sides. [In June] the [statutory regulator] Media Council of Kenya gave some warnings on this. At face value we might conclude the reason [for the media to take sides] is freedom, that they are freely choosing who to cover. But I really think if you look more deeply you will find it is about [the] state. Media houses rely heavily on government advertising or advertising from government-controlled institutions. So they will lean the same way as the president [in favour of Odinga]. The safety of journalists is problematic when it comes to such situations. If your media is perceived as being pro-Kenya Kwanza [Ruto coalition], would you feel comfortable covering an Azimio [Odinga’s coalition] rally? Or vice versa? And when these politicians speak up at the rallies negatively about the media houses, they don’t need to tell the audience to lynch this journalist or that journalist. Their statements are as good as orders. There is also a question of what happens after the elections if the side you supported does not win. How will you earn that [public] trust back?
Judie Kaberia, executive director of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and a former reporter who covered elections between 2007 and 2017 for the privately owned broadcaster Capital FM
The media owners are the most difficult group [to deal with] when we talk about ensuring that journalists work in a free environment where they can report independently, especially the media owners who have taken political sides. Of course they have freedom to say who they are supporting. But if the public trusts us to be objective and independent, then that is what it should be.
Women journalists face specific concerns. During elections, the crowds don’t see women journalists as professionals. They see them as sexual objects. It happened to me while reporting a political rally [in a past election]. You’re holding the microphone and someone is pinching you on the back and another one is just passing hands over you and is holding your bust. It has been so normalised, that we don’t see it as a crime. And even if we report it, nobody takes it seriously. They just say: “Just that? Just someone holding you? Tell them not to hold you.” It’s not a small thing. Because the next thing is that you’re so afraid. And you’re not metal, you’re not a piece of iron, of course you must be afraid. The ripple effect is that the women shy away from reporting on politics. The extremes that some editors have gone to [in response] is to tell women journalists not to go out to the field to report political rallies. Which for us is not a very good thing. We want the women to go out there, to report on difficult subjects.
[Editors note: Mumo, the author of this piece, is a member of AMWIK]
Sophia Abdhi, reporter and presenter with Al-Shifaa TV, an online media outlet based in the coastal Mombasa County
My experience, as a “lady” journalist covering my third election, has not always been that good. I remember one incident [on February 20, 2022]. We received a call early in the morning, to go meet Kalonzo Musyoka [a politician allied with Odinga], whom we’d been chasing for an interview. But I had a family emergency, and I did not have someone to watch my [three-year-old] son so I went with him. At the hotel, we also found [Odinga], so we had to interview him too. The security guards tried to take my son away but he refused. So he was there on the sidelines, while I was interviewing [Odinga] and Kalonzo. I even have pictures of him with the politicians. The story was a scoop: for our online media house to have a story that even the mainstream did not have. But I felt bad. Having my son with me that day, I felt like I was exposing my son. Later we had to cover a [Odinga] political rally. My colleague insisted that we stay in the car when things turned violent. Sometimes our colleagues feel they need to protect us as women. They see it as their duty. I have some taekwondo and boxing training; I can take care of myself. But I still fear becoming a burden to my colleagues.
John-Allan Namu, investigative journalist and founder of the independent news outlet Africa Uncensored
So far in this season, we have had few incidents [of physical attacks on journalists]. Yet I still feel there is a decline in press freedom. Self-censorship and “brown envelope” journalism [a practice generally considered unethical in which journalists accept payment in return for favorable coverage] are much bigger concerns in these elections than in previous ones. We’ve [also] seen journalists being chased out of meetings [by politicians]. As an independent outlet, without the name brand recognition of “mainstream” media, we have had our own issues with access, getting prominent politicians to sit down for interviews for instance. What I’ve heard from our teams [on the ground] is that the crowds at rallies are on edge, antsy. There is a sense that things could take an ugly turn fast. Covering situations that went violent in past elections I’ve learned a couple of things. The first: Don’t be a hero. Don’t try to get that exclusive shot at the expense of your own safety. Secondly, it’s always important to know where the police are. Are they coming? Are they already on the ground? And never put yourself between police and protesters. And avoid reporting after dark.
Recognizing that women journalists face unique threats [in the field] we are trying to mitigate this when we assign stories: matching reporters and producers in male-female pairs. Many of our reporters are young, so we will also try to put them together with someone who has more experience.