What role have the media played in Kenyan democracy? To what extent are they responsible for inflaming the post-election violence of 2008? This briefing from the BBC World Service Trust draws on semi-structured interviews and a review of research and monitoring material. It finds that the media have both undermined and invigorated democracy; an understanding of democracy in Kenya – and elsewhere – requires a strong understanding of the media’s central role in shaping it. Development actors need to provide demand-led, coherent support for public interest media.
In Kenya, the media, particularly local language radio, have been accused of being responsible for fuelling ethnic hatred and violence in the aftermath of the 2007 presidential elections. Similar accusations were made concerning the 2005 referendum campaign. Local language radio stations are routinely partisan and unethical. Talk shows have provided the greatest opportunities for hate speech and talk show hosts are not trained in conflict reporting or moderation. More recently, however, most local language stations (and much of the rest of the media) appear to have been playing an important role in calming tension and promoting dialogue.
The problem facing Kenya’s media is not an excess of media freedom, but a lack of it. There is no independent public broadcaster in Kenya. Media freedom cannot, however, be described simply in terms of independence from government.
- Journalists and broadcasters face immense commercial and political constraints to their independence and integrity. Free and plural media are jeopardised by the low pay, status and safety of journalists.
- Capacity building of media over recent years has largely been donor-led, focusing on specific issues such as health, rather than addressing the core challenges facing media in Kenya.
- Media monitoring by civil society and research organisations has done much to discourage the broadcast of hate speech by media organisations.
- Community media, despite its tiny size, played a very creditable role during the crisis.
The media policy and regulatory environment is the subject of ongoing debate within Kenya. Such debate should be encouraged, and attention could usefully be focused on a public interest approach to broadcasting and media. In particular:
- Coordination, information sharing and long-term strategic planning of media support within Kenya could be substantially improved.
- Community media could provide a model for the future. It requires better, more strategic support in Kenya and elsewhere, particularly in terms of policy engagement and financial sustainability.
- Media monitoring is currently haphazard and could be more systematic and better supported.
- Substantial progress in strengthening the media will not be possible unless the working conditions of journalists are improved.
- Any move within the country to transform the Kenyan Broadcasting Company into a public service broadcaster should be supported.
- Training for those facilitating public debate (such as talk show hosts) should be prioritised, along with training on conflict reporting.