Media switch off in Kenya

Kenya is seen as having one of the most diverse and vibrant media landscapes in East Africa. But a controversial six-day media switch-off has put the country’s news organizations at loggerheads with the government.

Three major television stations – Citizen Television, NTV and KTN News – were taken off the air on 30 January because they broadcast an opposition rally in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, where opposition leader Raila Odinga swore himself in as the ‘People’s President’.

The unofficial inauguration happened three months after the October 2017 presidential election, which Odinga and his supporters boycotted. He claimed the latest election – which itself was a re-run of the August 2017 ballot that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court – was illegitimate.

The government accused the media houses that broadcast Odinga’s swearing-in event of being party to ‘treason’ and accused the opposition of trying to overthrow the government.

In the case of KTN News, the broadcaster’s signals were turned off. For Citizen and NTV, officials are alleged to have physically disconnected machines to take the networks off the air. A High Court judge ordered the Communication Authority to restore the signals. On 5 February, the government finally did so.

Before the switch-off, the Editors’ Guild organization released a statement revealing that President Uhuru Kenyatta had personally warned media owners against broadcasting the ceremony.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Kenya has seen ‘a slow erosion of media freedom in recent years’. In the run-up to the August 2017 election ‘many independent journalists [were] the targets of threats and attacks by both the public and the authorities’.

Broadcaster Larry Madowo was arrested during the shutdown. He worries that Kenya is returning to its past of authoritarian rule, telling Financial Times that ‘this is going back to the [era of President Daniel arap Moi]… when journalists were detained on trumped-up charges’.