Kenya’s general elections since the onset of multiparty politics in 1992 have always elicited strong sentiment. This year’s election pitting two main contenders - former Prime Minister and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga and the current Deputy President William Ruto promise just as many fireworks. Raila Odinga is the candidate for Azimio - a coalition of close to twenty political parties that is also supported by the sitting President Uhuru Kenyatta. William Ruto, on the other hand, has cobbled together the Kenya Kwanza coalition with former Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi.
In past elections, the media’s role has come under question. For example, in the wake of the 2007 elections, they were accused of inciting violence and promoting ethnic sectarianism. In 2013, they were accused of being too coy for preaching peace instead of focusing on the loopholes in the electoral process, as the results of that year’s election were highly contested and eventually ended up at the Supreme Court for adjudication. This year’s elections, however, are being conducted in a media environment that is radically different. Kenya’s media institutions are presently judged as extremely vibrant and assertive.
This is mainly a result of three reasons. First is the growth of private media ownership in the country. Kenya’s media landscape is quite diverse and offers one of the most dynamic and competitive media markets in Africa. This is mostly due to the increased role and dominance of private investment. The public broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, has easily been eclipsed by private media conglomerates such as the Royal Media Services, The Standard Group, the Nation Media Group, and Media Max.
Secondly, the expansion of internet penetration and use among Kenyans has had a positive impact on the growth of dominantly online or digital media. The transition to digital broadcasting in 2015 has resulted in an upsurge of digital broadcasters who command a strong presence on Kenya’s media landscape. This increased media presence means that the flow of information related to political campaigns has been enhanced especially during this year’s electoral cycle. This expansion has also seen more voices representing diverse interests within the Kenyan society easily finding expression through the media.
A third reason relates to the relatively enhanced state of press freedom in the country. Unlike the early years of multiparty politics when media were constantly under state surveillance, harassment, and threats, the environment today is fairly stable and predictable for media operations. This has enhanced the confidence of the media at various levels. They can engage powerful people and institutions on any matter without fear, and generally sensitive stories get media play.
For these reasons, the media through various lobby groups associated with it such as the Kenya Editors Guild (KEG), the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), the Media Owners Association (MOA) among others have taken an active role in this year’s elections. Indeed, it is possible to see the connection between an assertive media landscape and the frontline role that Kenya’s media has taken in the conduct of this year’s elections.
Presidential Debates Initiative
During the first quarter of the year, the Kenya Editors Guild and the Media Council of Kenya engaged political parties and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to secure support for and participation in the national elections presidential debates initiative. A joint presidential debates secretariat was consequently created with the support and participation of leading media institutions. Later this was cascaded down to the various devolved regions of the country where debates have been organized for local gubernatorial elections.
The debates were systematically rolled out starting with the Counties and arriving to the main presidential debate. Through the debates, common citizens have had the opportunity to hear directly from the candidates and to compare their plans for the country. Largely considered a Western concept, the presidential debate initiative by the country’s media has been successful.
The Deputy president’s debate was the first on the cards, and divided into two tiers- the candidates below 5% in the polls ratings came first, followed by those with higher ratings. The second-tier duel between Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua (Azimio) and Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua (Kenya Kwanza) attracted the most attention given the dominance of the two coalitions that they represent. The main presidential candidate’s debate of July 26th, however, came a cropper after Azimio’s Raila Odinga pulled out a few days to the event. William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza coalition ended up the lone participant and faced several questions from a moderating panel of journalists.
This year’s election cycle has also seen the country’s media play a critical fact-checking role. They have listened to politicians and debunked disinformation. They have also fact-checked the contents of numerous viral social media messages associated with the campaigns. This effort has assisted in taking out of circulation information that is not factual and in extreme cases, had the potential to inflame violence.
As the country looks forward to election day, the impression is that unlike in the past, the country’s media are better prepared to carry out their watchdog role. In the past, results transmission after the counting of votes has been the cause of disagreements. The 2017 presidential results were nullified for what the Supreme Court said were irredeemable issues with the transmission and tallying process. This year, the Kenya Editors Guild on behalf of the media and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has signed a memorandum of understanding that will see the media conduct parallel tallying while also closely monitoring and reporting on the various aspects of the electoral process on election day and the subsequent tallying and transmission of results.