The year 2018 was a difficult one for press freedom in Kenya. Physical and verbal attacks against journalists increased. At the end of January, the government temporarily shut down several independent TV stations. Journalists, human rights organizations and the Media Council of Kenya repeatedly expressed their concerns over the deteriorating state of press freedom.

One year later, the International Press Institute (IPI) interviewed numerous Kenyan journalists on the implications for journalism in the country moving forward. Notably, although these journalists agreed that they faced greater attacks than before while exercising their profession, they also said this was a response to a more self-confident and critical media, which has increasingly revealed cases of corruption and misconduct.

Journalists finding their place as watch dogs

There are several reasons behind the growing attacks on journalists in Kenya. Poor working conditions, including low pay and lack of employment contracts expose journalists to danger, Victor Bwire, programmes manager of the Media Council of Kenya, told IPI. Bwire said that journalists do not receive enough safety training nor do they have sufficient insurance.

“There is also (the issuse) of impunity”, he said. “Cases that involve attacks on journalists are rarely investigated or prosecuted.”

But it isn’t just poor working conditions that have led to an increase in attacks on media freedom. Kenyan media have increased their coverage on government accountability, corruption and misappropriation of public funds. This growth in investigative reporting, Bwire said, has made the media a greater target for the authorities.

Salim Amin, the chairman of Camerapix, agrees that Kenyan journalists have recently assumed a stronger watchdog role. In 2007, Kenyan media were blamed for enflaming post-election violence. Following the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and the latest elections, journalists sought to be more cautious and not aggravate the national mood, Amin told IPI. “Journalists did not investigate a lot and the reporting was very subdued.”

Things changed, however, after Kenya’s supreme court annulled the results of the August 2017 presidential election, finding that the vote was “neither transparent nor verifiable”. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga ultimately refused to take part in the rerun – declaring himself instead the “people’s president – allowing incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta to win with over 98 percent of the vote.

Although the original result was therefore unchanged, the court’s decision showed that the judicial system was working. “I think this made the media industry to feel a little bit more confidence with the laws of the country”, Amin said.

Government officials behind most of the attacks

Still, the attacks on the media in Kenya in 2018 included a number of highly serious incidents that call into question the country’s ability to protect increasingly critical media.

The year began with an attack on four journalists covering a story at Lake Turkana, following by an assault on eight others just weeks later. In both cases, the journalists’ equipment was broken. On September 3, National journalist Barrack Odor was abducted; a woman he was with was later found dead. Five suspects, including the governor of Migori county, have been charged in the case. The Radio Lake Victoria reporter who broke the news of the kidnapping, was threatened and later said he feared for his life.

2018 also saw the shutting down of several private broadcasters, including Nation Media Group’s NTV, Royal Media’s Citizen and Standard Group’s KTN, after they broadcast coverage of Odinga’s symbolic presidential “inauguration”. The government had previously warned the stations not to transmit the event. A few stations, such as the state broadcaster K24 and the private channel K24, which is linked to Kenyatta’s family, obeyed the government warnings and avoided the shutdown.

The country’s highest court later ruled the shutdown illegal. However, the government initially ignored the ruling and in some cases waited more than a week before restoring stations to the air.

The incident drew what remains a sharp contrast between Kenya’s constitutional and judicial guarantees for press freedom and government actions in practice. Article 34 of the Constitution forbids the state from exercising control over media content. Unfortunately, government authorities often do not respect this principle. Indeed, most press freedom violations in Kenya have been carried out by government officials, Dawid Omwoyo, executive officer of the Media Council of Kenya said at the end of 2018.

Whose stories will reach the audience?

Experts say press freedom is most endangered in Kenya’s rural areas, where security problems and instability are highest. “Attacks have been reported especially from the counties (and are) perpetrated by gangs and county leadership”, Victor Bwire said. “The incidents have gone up.”

In addition to security issues, working conditions for county correspondents are less stable than those for journalists based in big cities such as Nairobi or Mombasa. National outlets do look for local stories, but since Kenya has 47 counties, most stories won’t break the national threshold. For correspondents paid on a commission basis, that means a lack of reliable income. “If your stories have high mortality, you will not earn enough”, Kenyan journalist Wanja Mungai noted, referring to whether stories perish without being printed.

Whether a story will live or die also has a gender component. Women journalists, especially those at vernacular media, work in even more complicated conditions than their male colleagues and have an even harder time getting their stories published. “For women, it can be difficult to get your ideas through because you are not taken seriously”, Mungai said. “For many editors, female journalists are the last choice and are sent to cover stories in war zones or conflict areas only when there are no male journalists available.” Unequal payment is also a problem for women journalists.

The media environment in Kenya also faces the challenge of politicization, with many major media houses owned by or linked to political figures. Creating media independent of political and business interests, Salim Amin said, “is not a Kenyan problem, but a global problem”, though one particularly present in developing countries like Kenya.

Indeed, the issues Kenya faces are not unique and the country still faces significant challenges in protecting the free flow of news. The country’s press freedom situation is frequently positively compared to that in neighbouring states. But Wanja Mungai argued: “We can argue that we have a better situation than, for example, Somalia and Uganda. But we still do not have freedom of the press yet.”