Kenya’s political leaders have always had a vested political interest in the control of the country’s media. But no president has had a more terrifying presence in Kenyan newsrooms than Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002.
The Sunday broadcast news in the 1980s and 1990s was a familiar ritual of Moi’s diary. Kenyans were told which church service he attended on the day. They were also told the colour of his suit and tie. Moi’s media persona was larger than the man. He populated every public space like a fetish. His omnipresence was felt across newsrooms, all of which had his framed picture strategically placed to ensure journalists were aware he was watching them.
Moi (who died on 4 February 2020) became the president of Kenya in a constitutional succession following the death of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. It was a messy succession and sections of the political elite weren’t comfortable.
Once he was sworn in, Moi began a process of state consolidation. His aim was to break up potential centres of political competition. And within three years – by 1982 – he had forced a constitutional amendment through parliament that saw Kenya become a one-party state. He had achieved near-total control of the country politically and constitutionally.
This process of political and state consolidation also involved the reinvention of what had ideologically sustained the Kenyatta state – the “nation-building” project. Here the media had a major role to play.
The nation-building project was a popular development in the first post-independence republics across Africa. Many political leaders invented the project on the premise that it was necessary for national cohesion.
The idea of “development journalism” was part of the project. This was a type of journalism that deliberately focused on positive “development” stories, especially those produced by the state.
But it was clear that the “nation-building” project was primarily a regime-building exercise, enforced through coercion and co-option.
For successful implementation, Moi’s administration found it imperative to control the dominant players in the media sector – the Daily Nation and the East African Standard. In the case of the East African Standard he became the majority shareholder through proxies.
At the Daily Nation he exercised some control through his relationship with the proprietor as well as through the control of government advertising. The government was, as it remains today, the single largest advertiser for the media .
But Moi wanted total control of a news outlet. He therefore set up a national party newspaper to act as a government mouthpiece alongside the state broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.
Through his ruling party, Kenya African National Union, he bought Hillary Ng’weno’s Nairobi Times and renamed it the Kenya Times. All government offices were required to buy copies of the Kenya Times.
The government also began frustrating alternative news media. Critical journalists were intimidated and incarcerated. It also banned opposition publications.
Journalists and media organisations became particularly vulnerable to state intimidation. Although media freedom was provided for in section 79a of the constitution, it remained subject to the provisions of the penal code. This gave the government power to clamp down on the media in the interest of public morality, public order and national security.
Between 1988 and 1990 nearly 20 publications were banned. Their editors were either jailed, fined or forced into exile.
Kenyans found their voice through other institutions such as the church and civil society and in cultural spaces such as theatre and music. In addition, a range of alternative media sprang up. This included a group of unprofessionally produced clandestine media, often with no known addresses.
These were mainly newsletters, which appeared intermittently. They were vociferous critics of the administration and often uncovered stories about corruption and other scandals involving the ruling elite.
But Moi was forced into reintroducing political pluralism following economic and political turmoil, as well as international pressure. In 1992 he repealed section 2A of the Kenyan constitution and thus enabled nominal liberalisation of the media sector.
In addition, liberalisation of the economy saw the growth of the private sector. This in turn led to a bolder media able to draw advertising from non-state actors.
The broadcast sector in particular grew. A number of new licences where issued. But the process was not without controversy as it was undermined by state and political patronage.
And new stations were only allowed to broadcast in specific geographical areas, and in English and Kiswahili, limiting their appeal. To avoid confrontation with the state, they also operated principally as entertainment stations.
But, as opposition to Moi’s leadership intensified, new political alliances between hugely popular political players from dominant ethnic groups forced his administration to begin licensing local language radio stations.
The Moi administration became increasingly interested in using new radio stations to reawaken ethnic consciousness. Its hope was that this would destroy the trans-ethnic alliance that opposition forces had formed under the umbrella political outfit National Rainbow Coalition. If the coalition crumbled, Moi would win the elections. This was never to be.
For other media, the government used existing legislation and a compliant judiciary to tame their influence. A highly abrasive opposition newspaper, The People, then owned by one of the opposition leaders, Mwai Kibaki, became a runaway success in its early years, exploiting the disaffection with the conservative political reporting of both the East African Standard and the Daily Nation.
It liberally attacked senior government officials and ruling party politicians. To limit its influence, some politicians sued for libel. Some won. Faced with huge fines, court suits and state intimidation, The People’s roar became a whimper.
Moi’s imprints in Kenya’s media landscape remain. While the conditions for practising journalism have improved since his electoral defeat in 2002, state interference remains. Journalists still face intimidation from state actors and the media remain vulnerable to coercion and manipulation.