When Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga staged a mock ‘inauguration’ on Tuesday before a crowd of thousands in Uhuru Park, state-owned KBC aired a documentary on penguins rather than cover the event. Private broadcasters that aired live footage of the opposition rally were forcibly shut down.

Authorities sustained their shutdown on Friday in defiance of a high court order to reopen the broadcasters pending a full hearing on the matter.

What this signifies for Kenya is a major attack on independent news reporting and a drift toward state-sanctioned infotainment that avoids asking hard questions or covering difficult stories.

CitizenTV, InooroTV, KTN and NTV all went off-air during a live broadcast of the opposition gathering at which Raila Odinga had himself crowned the “people’s president.” Officials have characterized Raila’s move to ‘inaugurate’ himself as a treasonous act that undermines the constitution and rule of law.

Irrespective of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Odinga’s actions, his rally this week in the capital Nairobi was a major public event that a number of broadcasters at their own editorial discretion had deemed newsworthy and had dispatched film crews to cover. The government decision to stomp out their free choice is deemed “a brazen example of censorship” by the Committee to Protect Journalists and a “a denial of our right to information” by Kenya’s International Commission of Jurists.

Both civil society groups want the government to reverse its ban and reopen the stations as ordered by the high court. The government move, however, can’t simply be reversed as if what they have done is merely to press an on/off switch. The shutdown, even if it ends soon, will have enduring effects on the editorial culture of Kenya’s media houses, which are already under major financial pressures owing to technological changes that give Kenyans an increasing number of entertainment and information options.

Moreover, this week’s shutdown involves not only a move against private broadcasters as institutions but also targeted moves against several individuals. According to Daily Nation, police have attempted to arrest at least three Nation Group journalists this week – Linus Kaikai, Larry Madow, and Ken Mijungu – though a court ordered police to halt these attempts after the three applied for anticipatory bail. Such police actions make it harder for the media houses to maintain group solidarity and act as institutions.

Last month saw a major purge at Nation Media Group, including a Sunday Nation managing editor Eric Obino, Group Head of Content Tim Wanyonyi and newsdesk assignments editor Bernard Namunane, in line with plans to trim the staff size, but also allegedly under pressure from “State House operatives (who) have been keen to silence critical voices at Nation Media Group’s newspaper division, ” according to reports by Kenya’s Business today, which has been covering the downsizing.

The shutdown, even if it ends soon, will have enduring effects on the editorial culture of Kenya’s media houses.

“President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy President William Ruto are said to have been piling pressure on Nation management to get rid of journalists perceived to be critical of the government. They started off by having award-winning editorial cartoonist Gado pushed out of Nation (last year),” the business daily reports. Gado’s exit was followed by that of Special Projects Editor Denis Galava, who left shortly after publishing a scathing editorial against the Jubilee administration early 2016.

Even if Kenya’s private TV stations go back on-air in the coming days, the shock of the shutdown will have changed the calculations of some Kenyan media managers and journalists in potentially dramatic ways. For how long will journalists’ parent companies be willing to operate expensive in-house journalism programmes under such conditions? Is it worth the political risk to undertake critical news coverage? Or are they better off sticking with a programme of state-sanctioned penguin documentaries?

Photo Credit: Twitter/ Leon Lidigu

Categories: Journalism Kenya

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