For the second time in three years, Kenyans have found themselves staring at blank TV screens when switching to any of the top three independent TV stations to watch the news. The government shut down three of the country’s top TV stations — a move now blocked by the courts. In February 2015, KTN News, NTV and Citizen TV went off air for two weeks following a dispute with the government over digital migration. Today, however, the reasons for the media shutdown are, however, much darker.
It is the latest act in Kenya’s long-running, slow-motion crisis over last year’s presidential elections. Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA), successfully contested the validity of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in August, and won a historic judgment from the country’s Supreme Court annulling the poll results. Odinga then refused to participate in, or recognize the outcome of the repeat elections ordered by the same court. After promising to have himself separately sworn in as the “people’s president,” Odinga finally did it during a somewhat chaotic, but peaceful ceremony on Tuesday, much to the consternation of the Kenyatta administration, which had issued dire warnings of grave repercussions should Odinga go through with it.
Odinga’s swearing-in ceremony did not go exactly according to plan. Despite a crowd of thousands on hand to witness it, the event itself was delayed by several hours. When it did finally take place, Odinga’s three principal allies in NASA, including Kalonzo Musyoka, Odinga’s choice to become the vice president, failed to appear, which led to talk of a split within the coalition. After taking the oath, Odinga himself then failed to deliver an inaugural address, instead promising that the speech would be handed over to the press — which has yet to happen. If his supporters had hoped for an articulation of the significance of the “people’s presidency,” or for a plan to move beyond a symbolic protest, they would be disappointed. Oyunga Pala, a prominent local newspaper columnist, spoke of a “deflated sense of the crowd after the oath taking.” It seemed the opposition had self-immolated in a blaze of impotent glory, but the government was not going to let it have the last say.
Odinga’s “inauguration” has also revealed splits within Kenya’s media. A day before the ceremony, Linus Kaikai, NTV’s general manager and the chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild, issued a statement condemning a meeting where media representatives were bluntly ordered by President Kenyattta to not cover the event live. Kaikai’s statement, and the responses it drew from others in the press, also shone a light on the split within the media — with defenders of the government, who argue that “media freedom has to be accompanied by a high degree of responsibility,” on one side, and those who believe the government has no business telling the media what it should and shouldn’t cover on the other.
The event also appeared to split the government, with hard-liners insisting on a clampdown to keep it from happening, which would have inevitably led to bloodshed. Since the August elections, the tough-talkers, such as Interior Secretary Fred Matiang’i and David Murathe, the vice-chairman of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, seemed to have the upper hand. Between August and November, a vicious crackdown on election-related opposition protests had left more than 50 dead and dozens of rapes reported.
This time, however, cooler heads appeared to prevail within the government. Police deployed to stop the rally were called off at the last minute, averting much-anticipated violent clashes between NASA supporters and the police. Instead, the state appears to have turned its fury on the country’s media. In doing so, the Kenyatta government seems to have snatched infamy from the jaws of a potentially significant political victory.
Not only have its actions changed the focus of the story from the impotence of the opposition’s tactics to the administration’s own villainy, but it has also rallied NASA’s principals as well as civil society groups. The shutdown within Kenya is making headlines globally, though much of the international media had been content, in the absence of significant violence, to take a pass on the NASA event.
For many Kenyans, the attack on the media is a return to the dictatorship that the country’s 2010 constitution was meant to end. During the darkest periods of Daniel arap Moi regime, it was common for the government to lean on media stations to either not cover opposition protests or to get rid of pesky, independent-minded editors and journalists. But shutting down entire stations was unheard of. In fact, by the time his regime was ousted in 2002, most restrictions on media coverage had been done away with, and the fear of both popular and international reaction largely kept the government in check.
However, in the post-Moi era, those who fought him turned out to be just as bad, and it was they who have put Kenya on this damaging trajectory. Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, in 2006 sent masked police to raid the offices, printing presses and studios of the Standard group, Kenya’s second-largest media house and the owner of the Standard newspaper and KTN, to stop publication of an unfavorable story. Copies of the newspaper were burned, and the TV station was shut down for several hours.
It is true that the media could be said to have made its own bed, the Kenyatta government’s actions pose a grave threat to Kenya’s democracy, especially from a clique that has openly extolled the virtues of authoritarianism. It remains to be seen whether the international community, which has so far stood by Kenyatta throughout his administration’s violence and electoral abuses, will continue to stick with him as he drags Kenya into the past.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya. Follow @gathara