Kenya’s 18 point drop in the recently released 2014 World Press Freedom Index rankings from Reporters Without Borders constitutes one of the larger year over year drops in the report. The drop is largely due to a newly enacted law that establishes a special media court to oversee print and broadcast media and impose punitive fines on reporters and media houses that infringe upon media conduct rules. The net result is a cutback in press freedoms and a breach of constitutional protections granted to Kenyans and Kenyan journalists in the 2010 constitution.
The new Kenya Information and Communications Bill was passed in early December as a result of the media fallout following the Westgate Mall attacks last September. The attacks, which saw militant gunmen lay siege to the shopping center for three days, created a global media frenzy. One popular investigative news program ran an hour-long program that showed Kenyan security forces carrying bags of merchandise from a Nakumatt (a popular Kenyan grocery chain). In response to the program the government of Kenya lashed out at the producers of the show and the station that aired the program and even threatened arrest for drumming up anti-Kenyan “propaganda” and inciting people with “hate speech.” The government reaction ultimately led to the formulation and passage of the Information and Communications Bill and the Media Council Bill despite outcry from the Kenyan media and civil society organizations.
Even though the military launched an investigation following the accusations of looting, and even punished soldiers found guilty, it is extremely regrettable that the reporting of the looting led to a rollback of press freedoms in the country. Fortunately, the Kenyan media scored an early victory this month in its attempts to fight back against the new media laws. The situation remains fluid and worth keeping up with.