Stephen Gitagama, Group CEO of Nation Media Group, was elected as a member of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s global Executive Board earlier this month at IPI’s World Congress in Geneva. With publications in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, the Nation Media Group is the largest independent media house in East Africa. During the Congress, IPI had the opportunity to speak with Gitagama about developments affecting press freedom in his region. In recent years, journalists in East Africa have faced a growing crackdown on free media, including via new repressive regulations and physical attacks, though there has also been some positive news.

IPI: How would you define the media landscape in East Africa in 2019?

SG: We have a very mixed media landscape. We have both good and bad things, depending on which country. We have positive stories from Kenya, but not so positive ones from Tanzania and Uganda. The media has a very difficult time for example in Tanzania, because of legislation that is hindering the media’s work. There was a time when the government suspended some of our media operations in Tanzania. The government´s interference has been significant also in Uganda. The media regulator ordered several radio and TV broadcasters to suspend some staff (in May 2019).

Even back in Kenya we have challenges. The government is weaponizing advertising, making it difficult for media companies to operate independently. I think I can summarize the situation saying that it has been very challenging. It has not been smooth, but the media have continued to defend the public and provide information that is relevant for the development of the region.

IPI: The East African Court of Justice ruled in March 2019 that Tanzania’s Media Service Act violates press freedom. How significant is this ruling in your view?

SG: It was very significant. I think the demands of the Media Act were going to make it very difficult to operate as a journalist in Tanzania, so the court decision was very welcomed. I hope it will also lead to other provisions of that act being entirely disregarded.

IPI: You said that the situation for journalism in Kenya is better than in other countries in the region. But has the decrease in press freedom in neighbouring countries impacted Kenya as well?

SG: Yes, there has been an impact. The fear we have is, that what is happening in neighbouring countries – the legislation, the behaviour of the government, the behaviour of other authorities – will happen also here. It can happen easily. These countries copy one other, they are all part of the same region, the East African community. So, we have this fear that whatever happens in Tanzania, in Rwanda, in Uganda, will also happen here in Kenya. It´s just a matter of time.

IPI: Has the Kenyan government shown signs of following the oppressive methods of neighbouring countries?

SG: Yes, the government has given comments on the “need to control the media”. They are also studying the legislation, especially from Tanzania. However, the level of media freedom in Kenya is relatively high, so it won´t be easy to repress it. We have a vibrant and strong media and also support of international institutions like IPI.

We are happy about IPI´s help. For example, (earlier this year) IPI sent a mission to Tanzania, where one of our journalists (Azory Gwanda) vanished in November 2017. We are glad that IPI is supporting the interests of journalists in that country.

IPI: Has there been a proper investigation into the disappearance of Azory Gwanda?

SG: We don’t know. The police have not given us any formal feedback. We have never had any information about him. There have been no arrests, nor any clue of any nature – just silence.

IPI: With the current decrease of press freedom in East Africa, what would you consider as the most urgent challenges of the region?

SG: The biggest challenge for the media at the moment is the government. The government is not supporting media and is always looking to frustrate media. Instead of seeing the value of the free media, the government is seeing media as an enemy of development. Actually, there are some head of states that are referring to media as “enemies of their country” and “enemies of development”.

Another big problem is serious corruption, which makes it really hard to operate in the region. The corruption infiltrates the media, because there are times when the media can be compromised. In the process you cannot entirely trust in, what is coming out from some media houses. Some media houses are highly fragmented, and their resources are limited. Sometimes, they can´t even afford transport and basic tools. In such conditions, without the necessary resources, journalists are easy to compromise. They need also to survive. And there are corrupt people out there, ready to step in. It is a big problem.

IPI: How should journalists respond when they are smeared as enemies of their country? How can independent media in East Africa be empowered?

SG: The media must remain fair and independent. Journalists should be fearless, and they should stand with the truth. You will never have problems if you are factual and truthful. It doesn´t matter whether there is oppression or there is no oppression. We must remain truthful, fair and factual. If we are not factual, if we are not balanced, it becomes very difficult for us to win. The truth will always win.