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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.


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Breaking: Witness Radio and Partners to Launch Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy Project Tomorrow.



By Witness Radio Team.

Witness Radio, in collaboration with Dan Church Aid (DCA) and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD), is set to launch the Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy for Human Rights in Uganda (MDA-HRU) project tomorrow, 22nd February 2024, at Kabalega Resort Hotel in Hoima District.

The project, funded by the European Union, aims to promote the protection and respect for human rights, and enable access to remedy where violations occur especially in the Mid-Western and Karamoja sub-regions where private sector actors are increasingly involved in land-based investments (LBIs) through improved documentation, and evidence-based advocacy.

The three-year project, which commenced in October 2023, focuses its activities in the Mid-Western sub-region, covering Bulisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kikuube, Kagadi, Kibale, and Mubende districts, and Karamoja sub-region, covering Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Nabilatuk, Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, and Karenga districts.

The project targets individuals and groups at high risk of human rights violations, including Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs). It also engages government duty bearers such as policymakers and implementers in relevant ministries and local governments, recognizing their crucial role in securing land and environmental rights. Additionally, the project involves officials from institutional duty bearers including the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), Equal Opportunities Commission, and courts, among others.

Representatives from the international community, faith leaders, and business actors are also included in the project’s scope, particularly those involved in land-based investments (LBIs) impacting the environment.

The project was initially launched in Moroto for the Karamoja region on the 19th of this month with the leadership of the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD).

According to the project implementors,  the action is organized into four activity packages aimed at; enhancing the capacity and skills of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs) in monitoring, documentation, reporting (MDR), and protection, establishing and reinforcing reporting and documentation mechanisms for advocacy and demand for corporate and government accountability;  providing response and support to HRDs and marginalized communities; and lastly facilitating collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagements that link local and national issues to national and international frameworks and spaces.

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Kiryandongo leadership agree to partner with Witness Radio Uganda to end rampant forced land evictions in the district.



By Witness Radio team.

Kiryandongo district leaders have embraced Witness Radio’s collaboration with the Kiryandongo district aimed at ending the rampant violent and illegal land evictions that have significantly harmed the livelihoods of the local communities in the area.

The warm welcome was made at the dialogue organized by Witness Radio Uganda, Uganda’s leading land and environmental rights watchdog at the Kiryandongo district headquarters, intended to reflect on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

Speaking at the high-level dialogue, that was participated in by technical officers, policy implementers, religious leaders, leaders of project affected persons (PAPs), politicians, media, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and development partners that support land and environment rights as well as the Land Based Investments (LBIs) Companies in the Kiryandongo district, the leaders led by the District Local Council 5 Chairperson, Ms. Edith Aliguma Adyeri appreciated the efforts taken by Witness Radio organization to organize the dialogue meeting aimed at bringing together stakeholders to safeguard community land and environmental rights in order address the escalating vice of land grabbing in the area.

During the dialogue, participants shared harrowing accounts of the impacts of land evictions and environmental degradation, including tragic deaths, families torn asunder, young girls forced into marriage, a surge in teenage pregnancies, limited access to education, and significant environmental damage which have profoundly affected the lives of the local population in Kiryandongo.

Participants attending the dialogue.

In recent years, Kiryandongo district has been embroiled in violent land evictions orchestrated to accommodate multinational large-scale agriculture plantations and wealthy individuals leaving the poor marginalized.

According to various reports, including findings from Witness Radio’s 2020 research Land Grabs at a Gun Point, the forceful land acquisitions in Kiryandongo have significantly impacted the livelihoods of local communities. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 individuals have been displaced from their land to make room for land-based investments in the Kiryandongo district. However, leaders in the district also revealed in the dialogue that women and children are affected most.

The Kiryandongo Deputy Resident District Commissioner, Mr. Jonathan Akweteireho, emphasized that all offices within the Kiryandongo district are actively involved in addressing the prevalent land conflicts. He also extended a welcome to Witness Radio, acknowledging their collaborative efforts in tackling and resolving land and environmental issues in the district.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that the land rights together with environmental rights have been violated in our district, but because we don’t know what our rights are, because we have not directly done what we could to safeguard our rights and now this is the time that Witness Radio has brought us together to safeguard our rights. I want to welcome you in Kiryandongo and be rest assured that we shall give you all the necessary support to help us manage these rampant cases,” Ms. Adyeri said in her remarks during the dialogue meeting.

The team leader at Witness Radio Uganda, Mr. Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala expressed gratitude to the participants for their active involvement in the dialogue and revealed that Witness Radio’s objective is to find a holistic solution to the escalating land disputes in Kiryandongo district serving as an example to other districts.

“We are here to assist Kiryandongo district in attaining peace and stability because it stands as a hotspot for land grabbers in Uganda. Mismanagement of land conflicts in Uganda could potentially lead to a significant internal conflict. Everywhere you turn, voices are lamenting the loss of their land and property. Kiryandongo, abundant with ranches, suffers from a lack of a structured framework, which amplifies these land conflicts. The influx of wealthy investors further complicates the situation,” Mr. Ssebaggala disclosed.

Within the dialogue, Mr. Ssebaggala emphasized the need for the Kiryandongo district council to pass a by-law aimed at curbing land evictions as an initial step in addressing the prevalent land injustices.

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Kiryandongo authorities decry rising cases of land disputes



The LC5 chairperson of Kiryandongo, Ms Edith Aliguma Adyeri, has saidnland dispute has impacted on people’s lives, dignity and children’s education in the district.

Just like other parts of Uganda, conflicts over land in Kiryandongo arise when individuals – who often are blood relatives – compete for use of the same parcel of land or when members of the community lay claim over ownership of unutilised government land.

Ms Adyeri further said land and environmental rights affect people both directly and indirectly, “and we are not hearing it from afar. It is already together with us [here], it has already affected us!”

She was speaking at a meeting which sought to discuss alternative remedies to salvage the appalling land and environmental rights situation in Kiryandongo at the district headquarters on Thursday.

The one-day dialogue was aimed at reflecting on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

It was attended by private companies, members of civil society and local government officials and organised by Witness Radio – an advocate for land and environmental rights in Uganda – in partnership with Oxfam, and Kiryandongo District leadership.

“Some people have even died, families are broken up, and brothers are not seeing eye-to-eye because of land rights. Access to justice is equally becoming very difficult because when you hire one lawyer that
lawyer will talk to learned friends, and they agree. They leave you in suspense,” Ms Adyeri said.

According to her, some children have not accessed education because of land and environmental rights.

Mr Jonathan Akweteireho, the deputy Resident District Commissioner of Kiryandongo, said enlightened people especially should be sensitive to the historical injustice of this area.

“We can never handle the Bonyoro land question without thinking about that history. It will be an injustice to the incomers, to the government and to the leaders who don’t understand,” he said.

“We had 38 ranches here which on the guidance of these international organisations, especially the World Bank, the government restructured them, allowing people to settle there, they were never given titles and up to today, there are big problems in all those ranches,” he added.

Mr Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, the executive director of Witness Radio, said that a well-functional land sector supports land users or holders and investors, reduces inefficiencies and provides mechanisms to resolve land disputes.

Mr David Kyategeka, the secretary to the Kiryandongo District Land Board, said the issue of land rights is very clear but the major challenge has been sensitising the locals to know what rights he or she expects to enjoy out of this very important resource.


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