Why Support Kenyan Independent Media?

Kenya’s establishment media is frequently cited as the strongest in East Africa, thanks to constitutional protections for freedom of the press, a broad plurality of media, bold journalists, and Kenyans’ healthy demand for news and information. But it still faces steep challenges in achieving media’s full potential as an agenda-setter and public watchdog. Long-standing political and commercial forces—and, to some degree, constraints related to skills and capacity—continue to hamper the media’s collective ability to sustain high-quality, independent reporting.

Right now, there is an opportunity to support the brave journalists and media entrepreneurs who are committed to greater government accountability through media oversight. Those who support free press and good governance can play a role in helping media achieve its potential, by assisting media actors overcome the systemic barriers—economic uncertainty, political interference, skills and capacity gaps, and weak links with civil society—they face in Kenya today. This report offers a close look at the current state of the Kenyan media, and provides a set of recommendations for how to best support a stronger independent press.  

Support for independent media

Independent Kenyan media has experienced a decline in resources over the past few years, including donor support for media initiatives. This has led to downsized programs, staff layoffs, and the deterioration of core operating support that has been critical to the survival of independent media.

These declines in funding come at a time when most media respondents have perceived intensified efforts from government actors to undermine freedom of the press. Attacks on the press are not new in Kenya, but this downward shift has stood in contrast to the optimism inspired by the explicit protections for freedoms of press, expression, and access to information in sections 33, 34, and 35 of the 2010 Constitution. Supporters have typically focused on training and capacity, resource centers, reporting grants, and some operating costs for outlets. But support has been insufficient to address the significant economic and political pressures that limit media’s independence.

This report hopes to inspire a holistic approach to strengthening independent media in Kenya. This means addressing economic, skill, and capacity shortfalls while at the same time finding creative ways to shield journalists from political interference. Our goal is to offer analysis and recommendations to help media entrepreneurs, journalists, donors, investors, government actors, and other stakeholders develop a shared understanding of the powerful economic and political challenges faced by Kenyan media, in order to inform new collaborative efforts that can strengthen the ecosystem for independent media.

About this Report

This report was commissioned by Omidyar Network, which engaged Reboot to examine the current state of Kenyan media, and identify opportunities to support independent media in reporting on governance issues. To do this, research focused broadly on how decision-making is done in the media ecosystem: How do different media actors account for the needs and interests of diverse audiences when reporting on governance issues? What risks or challenges do different media actors face, and how have they overcome (or struggled to overcome) them? What are the various factors—e.g. political, ethnic, other considerations—that affect editorial and business decisions?

Researchers also looked closely at media’s interactions with other key actors in Kenya’s social accountability ecosystem—citizens, civil society, and government—to gain a broader perspective of how Kenyans view their media. Specifically, research sought to understand the extent to which these actors believed media was fulfilling its responsibilities in keeping citizens informed, influencing the public agenda, and holding government accountable.

The findings and opportunities presented seek to inform those interested in supporting independent media in Kenya, and are intended as a starting point for further exploration.

How this research was conducted

IPrimary field research was conducted over three weeks in July 2017, which included 61 in-person and 12 phone/video interviews, which were semi-structured and lasted 1 to 1.5 hours. One focus group was also conducted. Media actors with a wide range of profiles represented approximately half of the respondents. They included journalists and editors within establishment and independent media organizations, as well as freelancers with varying degrees of experience. The second half of the respondents consisted of civil society organizations (most of which work with media or on media-related issues), citizens, and government actors. The perspectives of these non-industry actors helped provide a holistic view of how media currently operates and is perceived in Kenya.

The analysis presented in this report is based on the synthesis of primary research, key informant interviews, and a desktop review. Researchers made an effort to capture the patterns surfaced across multiple respondents. In some cases, direct quotes and examples have been used to help illustrate the findings presented.  

A note about the 2017 presidential elections

Protesters in Kenya, 2017
Source: Reuters/Baz Ratner

In the time since this research was conducted, Kenya’s media has faced significant challenges in covering the country’s extended election period. In August 8, 2017, Kenya held a presidential election. The leading candidates included incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta on the Jubilee party ticket, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition. Following a contested outcome, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the results of the August election. It then ordered an unprecedented second election, held on October 26, 2017, which Kenyatta ultimately won. Subsequently, in late January 2018, the government took unprecedented action against the media and forced four television stations off the air for covering the mock inauguration of Odinga.

While there has been vigorous public discussion on how well the press has covered a tense election period, we have limited analysis of the election itself in this report, as it took place after primary research was completed. Nevertheless, the many challenges detailed were on full display during the election period. For example, there were numerous reports of journalists being prevented from covering protests and accusations that the media failed to adequately investigate discrepancies in the vote collation process. Researchers frequently heard complaints that the media was failing to scrutinize the Jubilee and NASA campaign platforms. Of course, the dynamics and opportunities described in this report—which have affected coverage of the election period—run more deeply than current electoral politics, and are likely to persist through ongoing political changes.

Limitations due to geographic focus and timing

The research was based almost entirely in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and its surrounding peri-urban areas. The capital was chosen because of its proximity to both the media industry and government actors, as well as other project constraints. However, as Kenya is primarily a rural country, confining the research to Nairobi limits the representativeness of findings in relation to Kenya at large. For one, while the team sought to speak to a variety of actors specializing in a range of mediums (radio, television, print, and digital), the sample has a slight leaning towards published and digital mediums.

The timing of this research also posed some limitations. Research took place just weeks before the August 2017 elections, a heightened time of polarization in the country. As a result, there was significant scrutiny on the performance of Kenyan media. In a country where ethnic identity influences political decision making, the media’s performance is heavily judged based on each media institution’s perceived alignment with specific ethno-political interests. As a result, this potentially sharpened respondents’ perceptions about the performance of media as an agenda setter and public watchdog.

Researchers also struggled to secure the desired level of input from politicians and government officials due to the electoral campaign period. However, in spite of these weaknesses, the timing was, on the whole, a positive. A highly-charged election season provided abundant evidence of the intricate relationships between Kenya’s media and its political system.

Understanding Kenyan Media

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Scroll right to see how events of Kenya's past impacted its media ecosystem.

In a newly commercialized media, consumers enjoy expanded choices, especially as local language FM radio stations mushroom across the country. But while access to information increases, structural issues begin, as foreign entertainment floods in, and political interests claim radio frequencies.

Media Ownership Diversifies

After decades of total state control, the Kenyan media begins to open through legal and regulatory reform.


As media ownership begins to diversify, audience demand increasingly drives content. Journalist integrity degrades (as sensationalist coverage wins eyeballs). Seeing the need for reform, in 2003 private media actors found the Media Council of Kenya, seeking to promote self-regulation within the press in terms of industry standards and journalist credentials.

End of the Moi Regime

After 24 years of autocratic rule as president, Daniel Moi is pushed to retire, and his political party loses in the election; Mwai Kibaki becomes president.


Concerned by the media’s perceived role in the violence, Parliament pushes through new regulations, especially focused on controlling broadcast media; the 2009 regulations deal with hate speech and “inciting language” as well as profanity and explicitly sexual material. These continue to be used to reign in media through the 2017 election.

Simultaneously, a number of international bodies push for conflict-sensitive reporting. While full of positive intentions, this push contributes to further media suppression.

Post-Election Violence

Following the re-election of Mwai Kibaki, opposition-led tribal violence breaks out, killing as many as 1,400 people.


The constitution is a step forward for Kenyan media, negating many previous restrictive media regulations, and enshrining freedom of the press and access to information.

The devolution of power also thrusts local media into a crucial position of holding local government accountable for vital service delivery (a role many are not prepared to play).

The New Constitution

Kenya’s constitution is considered one of the region's most progressive. It devolves significant powers from the federal to the county level.

Uhuru Kenyatta becomes president

With the series of reforms, the state provides funding for the Media Council of Kenya—absorbing some of its role. Two new regulatory bodies are also established within government, meaning there are three bodies, with overlapping functions, in charge of regulating the industry and with the power to impose large fines on media houses or individuals.

The reforms’ positive effect of streamlined media governance is largely undercut by the journalist intimidation to which the new regulatory bodies contribute.

Amending Press Freedom

Parliament passes a number of amendments to laws dealing with the media, expanding the state’s role in media regulation.


After a TV news story exposes footage showing government forces allegedly looting stores during the attack, Parliament introduces a veiled “counterterrorism policy.” The new Securities Law criminalizes the publication of any insulting, threatening, or inciting material likely to cause alarm to the general public. The law increases self-censorship amongst journalists and editors.

Westgate Mall Attack

A gunman with ties to an extremist Islamic group kills 67 people in a Nairobi shopping mall.


The government, formerly one of the largest and most reliable revenue sources for media, gains steep negotiating leverage this way; by centralizing its advertising, the government is able to use advertising revenue as bait to push media institutions into uncritical support of its agenda.

Choking Ad Revenue

The government streamlines all advertising through the Government Advertising Agency, and consolidates its ad buys into a single platform (MyGov).


The goals of the transition are linked to economic and social development by creating jobs, expanding content, and efficiently using broadcasting resources.

Digital Television Arrives

Kenya transitions from analog to digital television, meeting one of the goals of the Vision 2030 development blueprint.


The right to access information, a constitutional guarantee, is strengthened through a new law which expands the types of information open to public request, and theoretically increases the speed. However, implementation is slow; government employees are nervous about what information they can share (and when), and citizen information request protocols are still new.

Access to Information

Parliament passes the Access to Information Law, through strong advocacy support from civil society.


Many of the challenges that establishment media face--political and commercial influence and intimidation, limited capacity--were on full display during this tense and drawn out election period. In addition to accusations of political bias in reporting, media largely failed to scrutinize either presidential candidate’s campaign platform. There were also reports of direct intimidation of journalists trying to cover campaign events and protests as well as accusations that the media abrogated its responsibility when covering the vote collation in August.

Kenyatta Wins Second Presidential Term

The Supreme Court annuls the August election and orders a rerun in October, which Uhuru Kenyatta wins. The opposition candidate Raila Odinga boycotts the second balloting.


The current government has been known to wield both carrots and sticks to influence press coverage, such as paying journalists for favorable coverage while pressuring media houses to fire troublesome journalists. However, forcibly taking television stations off the air is unprecedented. For many commentators, this action served to legitimize the mock inauguration, which may not have amounted to more than political theater had the government chosen to ignore it. At the same time, this recent action against the media has many worried about the future implications for freedom of press in Kenya.

Government Forces 4 TV Stations Off Air

The Jubilee government forces four major television stations off air for covering a mock inauguration by opposition candidate Raila Odinga. It then ignores a court order to turn stations back on for almost a week.

Next: The Accountability Ecosystem in Kenya Today