Kenya Takes TV Stations Offline Amid Election Controversy

On the 30th of January, the Kenyan government shut down three major TV stations which were broadcasting preparations for the swearing-in ceremony of opposition leader Raila Odinga as the “people’s president.” This demonstration, which is the culmination of a series of parallel institutions established by the opposition, follows the opposition’s Friday claim that the August 8th election was rigged. The opposition used an internal document compiled while the poll was conducted to support their claim that Odinga was in fact elected president of the East African nation.

At 5 AM, supporters of Odinga began gathering in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to watch the swearing-in ceremony of the opposition leader, a demonstration against alleged election rigging by the incumbent government. By mid-morning, three of Kenya’s biggest independent news stations, Nation Media Group’s NTV, Royal Media’s Citizen and Standard Group’s KTN News were taken offline as they broadcasted footage of supporters of Odinga gathering in the park.

Wachira Wararu, Managing Director of the Royal Media Group, who confirmed that the Communication Authority of Kenya made the disconnection, however, said that the government had made no assertions as to why this had taken place.  The Interior Ministry later made a press release stating that the broadcasting of the ceremony would have been tantamount to a “serious breach of security”. This claim is arguably supported by Kenyan law, as evidenced by Attorney General Githu Muigai’s statement that the purported inauguration could amount to treason and result in charges accordingly. Al Jazeera also reported on the 2nd of February that the government had released a statement alleging that the swearing-in ceremony was a “well-choreographed attempt to subvert or overthrow President Uhuru Kenyatta.” The establishment of shadow institutions could be seen to cross the line between mere political demonstration and treason as it arguably seeks to alter the structure of government as designated by the country’s constitution.

The August 8th, 2017 presidential election was annulled by Kenya’s Supreme Court for “Illegalities and irregularities.” NASA, the opposition party led by Odinga, boycotted the re-run, claiming that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission ignored the results, which suggested Odinga was the winner rather than the incumbent president. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index gave Kenya a score of 3.50 out of a possible 10 in respect to “electoral process and pluralism”. While this does not provide clear support for the opposition’s claim of a particular winner, it, however, reflects that independent research has shown that Kenya’s elections are not necessarily free and fair.

The opposition possesses a document which they claim supports this. Opposition Senator James Orengo asserted that “[t]he results contained in this document are authentic, unpolluted and unadulterated. It gives details of the KIEMS (Kenya Integrated Election Management System) kits and their numbers as well as the polling stations.” In light of this, it appears that the media shutdown may be a response by the incumbent government to the significant threat to their legitimacy posed by evidence of election manipulation.

Tom Mshindi, Editor in Chief of Kenya’s Nation Media Group called the shutdown of the broadcast “a sad moment for media freedom.” Government restrictions on the reporting of opposition activity effectively impugn the capacity of independent organisations to scrutinise government activity, for example in respect to the previously mentioned issues surrounding the legitimacy of elections.

For now, a crisis of press freedom in Kenya has been averted. On the 1st February, Kenya’s High Court suspended the shutdown for 14 days to ensure that it will be considered by the courts, creating a buffer to unfettered executive action. However, NTV released an announcement immediately following the suspension saying that they believe the disconnection of the stations concerned will be reinstated once the incumbent government has the legal capacity to do so. Although judicial intervention is promising, the state of media freedoms in Kenya remain in jeopardy.