Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga announced this week that he would not take part in a planned rerun of the country’s presidential vote scheduled for Oct. 26, marking the latest plot twist in the highly contested election.
Citing irregularities, the Kenyan Supreme Court previously overturned the results of the initial Aug. 8 vote, which was won by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta with 54 percent. At least 28 people were killed in protests following the court’s decision, though both sides’ acceptance of the ruling has thus far appeared to prevent potentially much worse violence.
With much at stake, and amid continued high tension, the Kenyan media’s ability to cover the campaign in a way that serves the interests of the voting public merits a closer look. While the country is home to a vibrant private media scene and boasts relatively strong constitutional protections for the press, restrictive new media legislation and incidents of violence against journalists continue to threaten the free flow of news and information.
IPI recently spoke to Bernard Namunane, assignments editor for Kenya’s respected Daily Nation newspaper, about press coverage during the elections and future prospects for media freedom in Kenya. The Daily Nation forms part of the Nation Media Group, which operates across eastern and central Africa and is an IPI corporate member. The interview was conducted prior to Odinga’s announcement on Oct. 10.
IPI: Were the Kenyan media able to cover the Aug. 8 elections freely and safely?
Namunane: The August elections took place in a politically charged and divisive environment. The media were under scrutiny from both sides, with each side determined to sway the coverage.
On many occasions, journalists from some media were blocked from covering events of either the National Super Alliance [NASA, party of Raila Odinga] or Jubilee [party of Uhuru Kenyatta] parties. There were incidents of attacks on journalists. One of our reporters was arrested by the police on the basis of a story he had written on Jubilee and taken to prison on trumped-up charges. He was later released due to a public outcry.
The government also withdrew adverts from critical media houses, which affected how freely the media could report on the elections.
IPI: What has been the greatest challenge for media ahead of the presidential election rerun?
Namunane: The hostility of political parties when they believe they are not being given favourable coverage. NASA has formed the habit of telling its supporters to boycott certain media houses, which endangers journalist safety. The government withdrawal of adverts and threats against journalists also pose serious challenges.
IPI: Have the different sides in the election been given fair coverage in the media?
Namunane: Generally, yes. However, a number of media appeared to take sides with one of the two leading political parties. For their part, politicians took to branding certain journalists as “pro-Jubliee” or “anti-NASA”, etc. Some of the media houses who embedded journalists within campaign teams were not very fair in their coverage.
IPI: What are your hopes from Kenya’s new president regarding media freedom?
Namunane: The Jubilee administration has, to some degree, started to claw back the gains in media freedom that are enshrined in the new constitution. Whichever side wins the election repeat, it is my hope that it will promote media freedom. That being said, I highly doubt that Jubilee will change its position on media freedom if it retains power.
IPI: How has press freedom evolved in Kenya in recent years – are you generally optimistic?
Namunane: Kenyan media enjoy unrivalled freedom of the media compared to other states in East Africa. After 2003, the restrictive ways of the [former ruling] KANU regime changed after the National Rainbow Coalition party (NARC) [which emerged in the wake of a failed 2005 constitutional referendum – Ed.] under now retired President Mwai Kibaki, won elections.
Specifically, it changed for the better with the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010. However, the trend that has been set by the Jubilee administration in enacting restrictive security laws is threatening to undo the gains in media freedom since 2003.