Connect with us


Media “switch-off” in Kenya: a looming threat to pluralist society



Guest post by Grace Mutung’u (@bomu)

On Tuesday, January 30, the Communications Authority of Kenya switched off three main television stations and a local language channel ahead of a mock swearing-in ceremony for opposition leader Raila Odinga. A day later, the “switch-off” was extended indefinitely as the government proceeded with investigations into the role of the media in broadcasting the swearing-in ceremony, which the government considers an illegal act. Okiya Omtata, a human rights activist, obtained court orders requiring that TV broadcasting be restored, with no more interference until the case is heard and a legal determination is reached. One week later, the government restored two of the four stations.

Regardless of the government’s rationale for cutting off TV broadcasting, it’s a disproportionate measure that interferes with the right to free expression, which includes the right to access information. This right is protected under the law.

One would think that this type of broad shutdown would be met with furious condemnation. But the rebukes have come mostly from media freedom veterans and organizations. In perhaps an indication of changes in foreign policy, the international community has taken a “balanced” diplomatic approach. The public wants vindication, as they have time and again raised concern over the media’s cosy relationship with the state. Should a media company’s purportedly dirty hands prevent us from defending its freedom? If we stay silent, could this TV switch-off lead to a full internet shutdown — despite the government’s pledge to keep the internet on?

For many years, Kenyans congregated in homes, entertainment venues, and other public spaces to watch the 7 o’clock news. In past eras, news content was largely from the executive point of view. In spite of the controls, people appreciated the news for its value in broadcasting information, regardless of the opinion it was clothed in. Fast forward to the present situation with Raila Odinga, leader of opposition, reading an oath before a crowd at Nairobi’s main public space, Uhuru Park.

Public curiosity about the Uhuru Park rally was high. Parts of the event were shared online and despite the fact that attention has shifted to the TV shutdown, analysis of the rally is ongoing. The government contends that by airing “an act of subversion,” the media is an accessory.

Public opinion is divided on the merit of Raila Odinga’s oath, with U.S. foreign policy reflecting support for the Kenyan government’s view that it is destabilizing for the nation. The three media houses that were shut down have taken cover under the constitutional guarantee of press independence.

Kenya’s Constitution protects speech online and off. The Constitution is relatively young, having been passed in 2010 with approval from 67% of Kenyan voters. It protects both the right to freedom of expression (art. 33), “which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas,” and freedom of the media (art. 34), affirming people’s right to broadcast without interference or penalty based on the viewpoint or content transmitted. Both of these rights are subject to limited exceptions. On the policy side, Kenya is one of 30 governments in the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of states “working to advance internet freedom” that has spoken out against network disruptions.

A point of contention in the debate is whether the media has acted in good faith. Take for instance how and why the switch-off story became known in the public sphere: news editors were in a meeting with the government and they disagreed on coverage of the Uhuru Park event.

For its part, the public has warned the press about the dangers of an opaque relationship with the government. Examples range from the widely discussed media high tea at Statehouse in 2013, the creation of the government advertising agency, the running of government promotions during the 2017 election period, and the drafting of “conflict-sensitive” guidelines for the election period. Not to mention that the media framed the election as a binary between the ruling coalition, Jubilee, and the opposition forces under Raila Odinga, thereby contributing to polarization of the society. This is not to say that all of these policies were wholly wrong, but to point out that they were made with little or no public involvement, as if they were purely business and not public-interest decisions. These are not inclusive, multi-stakeholder processes.

Among urban populations, switching off four television stations does not appear to have had made much of an impact yet. This might be because there are alternative news sources, including the content from the four stations that is available online. But the problem with the switch-off is not just what it reveals about the relationship between the media and the public, but what it says about how our society is organized and how the rules are made.

In the past, Kenya went through a “one party era,” where the executive was in total control of policy, law, and practices, and everyone was expected to toe that line. Now we have a dispensation that envisages a plural society with a separation of powers. The executive should not be the last word on what information should be available in the public sphere and a dispute involving some content should not be resolved in a manner that affects whether the public can make choices in the marketplace of ideas.

For those who depend on “free-to-air” channels (which you can watch without paying for a subscription), the switch-off significantly limited their access to information. In one online discussion about the switch-off, a young Kenyan lamented that those without internet access were calling their friends and relatives in Nairobi to get a picture of the ongoings at Uhuru Park. A journalist from one of the switched-off stations discussed how his programs, which cover government technical and vocational institutions, were cancelled because of this action. Those who work under contract for content producers are also out of work during the switch-off.

Outside the broadcast media, businesses that provide access to information — for example, internet service providers (ISPs) — are undertaking economic, tech, and regulatory risk assessments, simulating scenarios in case they get a government directive. What happens if the switch-off targets online media? Will ISPs push back?

It may be that government had legitimate reasons for the action it took — that’s not clear — but even if it did, switching off four television stations goes too far for fixing the problem it’s trying to address. Restrictions like this on free expression should be targeted and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim. The message the switch-off has sent to the Kenyan people, allies, prospective investors, and the world, is that under this administration, one can never be sure of what will happen, even when a freedom is clearly spelled out in the Constitution.

This switch-off is therefore bad for our society. As Article 19, Amnesty International, and others stated, the blocking is “unacceptable” and curtails press freedom. We add that the switch-off fails to respect the values of openness and inclusivity that are essential to internet policy making, and threatens the new balance of powers in pluralist Kenya.

While we call upon the media to improve its relationship with the public, let us defend our freedom to access information and ideas, consider them, and judge for ourselves whether they are good for us.


Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Statement: The Energy Sector Strategy 2024–2028 Must Mark the End of the EBRD’s Support to Fossil Fuels



The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is due to publish a new Energy Sector Strategy before the end of 2023. A total of 130 civil society organizations from over 40 countries have released a statement calling on the EBRD to end finance for all fossil fuels, including gas.

From 2018 to 2021, the EBRD invested EUR 2.9 billion in the fossil energy sector, with the majority of this support going to gas. This makes it the third biggest funder of fossil fuels among all multilateral development banks, behind the World Bank Group and the Islamic Development Bank.

The EBRD has already excluded coal and upstream oil and gas fields from its financing. The draft Energy Sector Strategy further excludes oil transportation and oil-fired electricity generation. However, the draft strategy would continue to allow some investment in new fossil gas pipelines and other transportation infrastructure, as well as gas power generation and heating.

In the statement, the civil society organizations point out that any new support to gas risks locking in outdated energy infrastructure in places that need investments in clean energy the most. At the same time, they highlight, ending support to fossil gas is necessary, not only for climate security, but also for ensuring energy security, since continued investment in gas exposes countries of operation to high and volatile energy prices that can have a severe impact on their ability to reach development targets. Moreover, they underscore that supporting new gas transportation infrastructure is not a solution to the current energy crisis, given that new infrastructure would not come online for several years, well after the crisis has passed.

The signatories of the statement call on the EBRD to amend the Energy Sector Strategy to

  • fully exclude new investments in midstream and downstream gas projects;
  • avoid loopholes involving the use of unproven or uneconomic technologies, as well as aspirational but meaningless mitigation measures such as “CCS-readiness”; and
  • strengthen the requirements for financial intermediaries where the intended nature of the sub-transactions is not known to exclude fossil fuel finance across the entire value chain.


Download the statement:

Continue Reading


Complaint against unprofessional conduct of the DPC Kiryandongo district for aiding and abetting land grabbing in kiryandongo district.



The Commandant,

Professional Standards Unit, Uganda Police-Kampala.

Dear Sir/Madam;


We act for and behalf of the Lawful and bonafide occupants of Land described as LRV MAS 2 FOLIO 8 BLOCK 8 PLOT 22 (FORMERLY KNOWN AS RANCH 22).

Our Clients are residents of Nyamutende Village, Kitwara Parish in Kiryandongo District where they have lived for more than 30 years and sometime in 2017, they applied for a lease of the said Land to Kiryandongo District Land Board through the Directorate of Land Matters State House.

As they were still awaiting their Application to be processed, they were shocked to establish that the said land had been instead leased to and registered in the names of Isingoma Julius, Mwesige Simon, John Musokota William, Tumusiime Gerald, Wabwire Messener Gabriel, Ocema Richard and Wilson Shikhama, some of whom were not known to the Complainants. A copy of the Search is attached hereto

Our clients protested the above action and appealed to relevant offices, but were shocked to discover that the above persons had gone ahead and sold the same to a one Maseruka Robert.

Aggrieved by these actions, the Complainants appealed to the RDC who advised them to institute proceedings against the said persons, and assigned them a one Mbabazi Samuel to assist them to that effect. The said Mbabazi accordingly filed Civil Suit Noa 46 of 2019 against tne said registered proprietors at Masindi High Court challenging the illegal and fraudulent registration, sale and transfer of the subject land to Maseruka Robert.

While awaiting the progress of the case mentioned hereinabove, the Complainants were surprised to find that the said Mbabazi, instead of assisting them, he went into a consent settling the said suit on their behalf without their knowledge or consent. A copy of the Consent is attached hereto.

Among the terms of the said consent Judgment was that the residents would be compensated without specifying how much and would in return vacate the Land.

As if that was not enough, Maseruka Robert and Mbabazi Samuel are going ahead to execute the said Consent Judgment by forcefully evicting the occupants without compensation which has prompted the complainants to challenge the said Consent by applying for its review and setting aside at Masindi High Court which is coming up for hearing on the 29th March 2023. A copy of the Application is attached hereto.

Sensing the imminent threat of eviction, we also filed an application for interim stay of execution of the said consent to avoid rendering their application for review nugatory but unfortunately the same could not be heard on the date it was fixed for hearing (6th February 2023). A copy of the Application is attached hereto

On Thursday last week, three tractors being operated by 6 workers of a one Mbabazi Samuel [the very person who had been entrusted to represent our Clients to secure their Land through Civil Suit No.46 of 2019] encroached close to 50 acres of our Clients’ land and started ploughing it but our Client’s protested and chased them away.

We have however been shocked to receive information from our Clients that on Sunday at Mid night, 3 police patrols invaded the community in the night and arrested community members; Mulenje Jack, Steven Kagyenji, Mulekwa David, Ntambala Geoffrey, Tumukunde Isaac 15 years, Kanunu Innocent, Mukombozi Frank, Kuzara, Rwamunyankole Enock, and took them to Kiryandongo Police Station where they are currently detained.

We strongly protest the illegal arrests and detention of our Clients as this is a carefully orchestrated land grabbing scheme by Maseruka Robert and Mbabazi Samuel who are  receiving support from the DPC Kiryandongo.

The purpose of this Letter therefore is to request your good office to investigate the misconduct, abuse of office and unprofessionalism of the said DPC Kiryandongo District and all his involvement in the land grabbing schemes on land formerly known as Ranch 22.

Looking forward to your urgent intervention,

C.C The Head Police Land Protection Unit Police Head Quarters Naguru

CC The RDC Kiryandongo District

CC The Chairman LCVKityadongo District

CC The Regional Police CommanderAlbertine Region

Continue Reading


The Executive Director of Witness Radio Uganda talks about the role played by Witness Radio in protecting communities affected by large-scale agribusinesses in Kiryandongo district in an interview with the ILC.



Continue Reading

Resource Center

Legal Framework




Subscribe to Witness Radio's newsletter


Subscribe to Witness Radio's newsletter