The International Press Association of East Africa (IPEA) on 28 March called on the police to respect the right of journalists to cover opposition protests.
- President William Ruto and his allies will attempt to suppress the media over the coming months as they seek to limit the extent to which the opposition can use the protests to legitimise its calls for reforms.
- These attempts will face significant legal and administrative hurdles, especially as the judiciary intervenes to reverse repressive directives.
- Nonetheless, this stance will strain relations between the authorities and the media, especially as it gradually undermines respect for civil and political rights in state institutions.
- These dynamics will increase the reputational risks facing businesses with close links to the government over the coming years.
The weekly protests began on 20 March after veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga called for mass mobilisation to denounce the rising cost of living. The protests have drawn increasingly large crowds in informal settlements in Nairobi and Kisumu counties. Odinga on 2 April suspended the protests, but they are likely to resume over the next few weeks, as he struggles to obtain a power-sharing agreement from Ruto. All Kenya’s main television stations have broadcast live footage of the protests. The Communications Authority (CA) on 22 March threatened to revoke the licences of these stations, claiming that the broadcasts could incite violence. However, the High Court on 26 March overturned this decision.
According to the IPEA, the police have used tear gas and arbitrary arrests to prevent journalists from covering the protests. Some journalists have also complained that police compelled them to delete images showing the unrest.
Ruto and his allies will remain keen to control the narrative around Odinga’s mobilisation campaign over the coming months. They have co-opted many politicians, including some prominent allies of Odinga. However, Odinga’s continued dominance of the opposition is widely seen as a threat to Ruto’s legitimacy given Odinga’s ability to influence public opinion, particularly amid rising socioeconomic grievances. Ruto and his allies are also concerned that the protests will attract further attention from Western partners and increase pressure on the president to negotiate with Odinga. They will thus look to control the manner in which the local and international media cover protests.
A series of reforms in the past decade have strengthened Kenya’s civil society and democratic institutions. This will make it difficult for Ruto and his allies to implement their repressive stance toward the media, underlined by the High Court decision. They are therefore unlikely to successfully use regulatory institutions such as the CA to shape coverage of the protests in the coming months.
However, the government’s stance will gradually undermine respect for media freedoms and broader civil and political rights in state institutions over the coming years. Such acts will likely drive a rise in disputes between the media and civil society on the one hand, and the authorities on the other.
The executive will also exploit its somewhat arbitrary control over the security apparatus to harass journalists as it aims to suppress scrutiny of growing reports that police have used excessive violence against protesters. Such actions are unlikely to be widespread given Ruto’s desire to improve his international image. However, local and international media and NGOs will intensify scrutiny of the conduct of the security apparatus and close allies of Ruto amid concerns over respect for civil and political rights under his government. Overall, these dynamics will increase reputational risks for operators with close links to the government in the coming years.