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The African and Kenyan Media as the Political Public Sphere

Murej Mak'Ochieng graduated from University of Bergen and is Senior Lecturer, Departement of Communication, University of Fort Hare, South Africa and PhD student at Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS), University of Natal, South Africa

The purpose of this paper is an attempt at demonstrating the importance of the application of the concept of the public sphere in the critical appreciation of the role of the mass media in the democratization process of African countries in general and of Kenya in particular. Starting from a discussion of normative media theories, the article reviews media politics in Africa. Against this backdrop, an assessment is made of Kenya's performance, pointing towards a further discussion of the applicability of general theoretical frameworks in the understanding of African development progressions.

There is considerable literature on the media and democracy in Africa, especially after the so-called second liberation or revolution that is believed to have come in the wake of the wind of change that started in the former soviet-bloc and spilt over into Africa. (Ansah, P.A.V. 1988, 1992; Boafo, K.S.T. 1992; Mak'Ochieng, M. 0. 1993; Ochieng, P. 1992; Ochilo, J.O. 1993; Odhiambo, L. 1991; Omwanda, L. O. 1991; Rønning, H. 1993; Ziegler and Asante 1992).

However, some of the above literature, especially that on Kenya, up and till very recently, borrows too heavily from Siebert et al. (1956) and McQuail (1987). It is our argument that this should not be the case, especially after the criticisms that have been levelled at these theoretical formulations and the accompanying suggestions for their rejection or reformulation. It is our aim therefore to discuss some of the reasons that have been given for such suggestions and to recommend the theory of the public sphere as a viable alternative also for Kenya and other African countries. We present the critiques of these formulations to underpin their relative unrealizability in existing societies, and as arguments for their adoption as ideal types instead. The discussion of recent developments in Africa is a general one. The concluding part on Kenya is short and issues therein raised should be discussed in more detail in later fora.

We will begin by discussing two important aspects that are shared by the formulations by Siebert et al. and McQuail on the one hand and Habermas (1989) on the other. Firstly, both have been heavily criticized, with accompanying suggestions for their reformulation, and secondly, both have as their strength their normative thrust. This is to be expected, since normative evaluation of the media as political institutions constitutes a theme that has a long and strong tradition in communications studies.


It was Siebert et al.'s project to argue that in the last analysis the difference between press systems is one of philosophy, and they therefore set out to concretize the philosophical and political rationales or theories which lie behind the different kinds of press existing in the world. According to them, since the beginning of mass communication, there have been only two or four basic theories of the press – two or four, that is, according to how one counts them. They argue that the Soviet Communist theory is only a development of the much older Authoritarian theory and the Social Responsibility theory is only a modification of the Libertarian theory. The reasons they give for treating the two theoretical derivations separately are because the Soviets had produced a system so spectacularly different from older authoritarianism and so important to the world, and because they considered the social responsibility theory to chart the apparent direction of development which the Anglo-American press was seen to be taking. (1956: 1–6).

Since 1956, Siebert et al. 's Four Theories has been subjected to criticism by various media scholars. (Curran 1991a, 1991b; Gurevitch and Blumer 1990; McQuail 1991; Negrine 1989; Skogerbø 1991; Syvertsen and Knapskog 1987). Most of the criticism is based on observation that Four Theories can be placed solidly within a liberal pluralist approach. It is also accused of ethnocentrism for using the American system as a model for democracy. The underlying idolisation of the American political system glosses over the fundamental biases within that society. From a neo-marxist position, the libertarian premise that potential political interests will organize and take part in the bargaining process is seen to be wanting, as only some among the large number of potential interest groups will be powerful enough to organize successfully and gain political influence.

Another major weakness that comes to the fore is the apparent main criterion applied by Siebert et al. for their classification of the various press systems; thus, the continuum of state controlfreedom from state control. This is classification according to the state's control over the content of the media, as opposed to press freedom per se. An apparent exception, however, is the 'social responsibility' theory which is not distinguished along this dimension. It is singled out as a separate category that came into being as a consequence of what the authors perceived as an internal development inside the press room. This theory, however, is still solidly placed within a liberal tradition, but modified according to the extensive criticism the libertarian theories and practices have been faced with. The emphasis placed on freedom in the libertarian context is merely extended to include obligations as well in the social-responsibility framework. (Skogerbø 1991: 143).

Denis McQuail (1987: 109–134), in his account of media theories, revisited the typology by Siebert et al. under the heading of normative theories. To the original four, he added two more 'theories'; the development media theory and the democratic-participant theory. As a basis for our concern with the African situation, we will here expound on the first of these two theories. This is mainly because of the extent to which it has been embraced in African perspectives both in practice and in theory. Among other sources and basic postulates, McQuail stresses particularly Unesco's McBride Commission (1980) as advocating for a development media theory. The major reason for this theory is given as the general inapplicability of the four theories and the great attention on matters to do with Third World communication.

In the development media theory as formulated by McQuail, one notices that there is a clear statement that the special conditions, values and aspirations of developing countries call for a particular normative orientation for the press prescribing roles that will serve the development goals. However, the contents of the theory shows, on the other hand, that these roles have already been prescribed in some of the other theories by Siebert et al… But more importantly, in this 'theory', the development support role is given overriding importance to the extent that its achievement is seen to justify the abridgement of other human and institutional rights and freedoms, especially press freedom. This is a major source of weakness in the theory because it contradicts what McQuail says is the theory's other concern; namely, respect for democratic communication as expressed and inhered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Skogerbø 1991: 144–146).

More recently, McQuail (1991) has argued for abandoning Theories of the Press because:

The confusion over the status of and possible application of normative theory has been made worse by their: high level generality; their lack of direct connection with actual media systems and often the lack of correspondence between normative pretensions and reality of performance… In many, if not most countries, the media do not constitute any single 'system', but are composed of many separate, overlapping, often theoretically inconsistent elements. For instance, values of independence and impartiality can be pursued with equal chance of success (or lack of it) by systems based either on principles of the free market or under strict public control… (p.69).


In spite of its weaknesses, we find Siebert et al.'s typology important for, modified to accommodate the above criticisms levelled against it, it provides a good starting point for the development of arguments for normative analysis as a prescriptive and analytical tool. Normative theories and analyses can be used to chart out roles for media performance and give yardsticks for evaluating that performance. Such theories and analyses can be used also to suggest how a particular society's media system should be organised.

As for the applicability of normative theories to different societal contexts, including those of Africa, we hope to demonstrate the importance of taking them as ideal types. This will make them useful and applicable universally, leaving the latitude for the consideration of pertinent and overriding conditions in the society of interest. The central normative ideals found in Siebert et al. 's typology can be precised and reconsidered in the context of changed political and socio-economic conditions. Most normative communication values are relevant to most societies at all times, though differentially. This means that there is no reason why norms and values to do with unity and order should not, for example, be pursued together and concurrently with those to do with the democratic ideals of equality and freedom. Critical normative analysis can uncover power structures, relations of subjugation and systems of oppression.


In the first three or so decades since independence, most African governments embraced a developmental philosophy in their approach to political and economic issues. Free at last from the yoke of colonialism, they had good and legitimate reasons then to make efforts to formulate and put into effect the best possible institutional structures and systems in politics, economics and social arrangements to address the peoples' educational, social and material needs. But there was another important aspect to the struggle for independence: The obvious and taken-for-granted promise of greater human freedom and respect for human rights that had been so grossly violated under colonialism. It must be remembered that in most African countries, the fight for independence was and has been a fight for the right to greater or full participation in the political process.

However, with time, most African rulers cultivated politics of suppression and intolerance as their economies also failed to register meaningful improvement. The peoples of Africa have seen a tendency toward the creation of monolithic political institutions in most of their countries. This development can partly be attributed to the propensity by their rulers to deprive their subjects of the right to contribute to discussions concerning their well-being and, more important, to question how their governments went about achieving the national well-being. There has been a systematic suppression of organized opposition, and the elimination of all forms of dissent saw the establishment of one-party states or military regimes.

These observations lead us to ask why things came to be the way they have been. What reasons, if any, did the political leaders give to justify their style of governance. It was argued that in the face of the enormous problems facing many African and other developing countries, it was necessary to abridge civil and political rights in order to accelerate development. What was implied by this position was that human and political rights had to come secondary to the imperatives of economic development, because the two could not be pursued simultaneously. Therefore, the argument goes, it was collective development and not individual rights and freedoms that needed to be emphasised. Some of the features of collective development were seen to be national identity and national unity. It was argued that during this initial period of growth, stability and unity had to be sought, criticism minimised and the public faith in government institutions and policies had to be encouraged. The result of this can only be seen to have been enforced or imposed consensus in the name of national development, and this was clearly at variance with the more enlightened view of development which sees free and active participation as an essential ingredient.

The reasons given above to justify the abridgement of human rights and establishment of undemocratic governments in the name of development, were likewise used to chart and prescribe a particular role and philosophy for the media in Africa and other developing countries. The specifics of this role and philosophy gave rise to, and have found expression in, the development media theory (McQuail 1987), which is sometimes referred to as developmental theory, developmental theory of the press (Ansah 1988, 1992), development communication (Melkote 1991; Moemeka 1989). However, as we illustrate presently, a closer look at this tradition reveals that it has three distinct orientations. The orientation that has received the most attention is that which looks at the various ways in which communication media can best be used to meet the development needs of Third World countries. This tradition has its birth during the development decade of the sixties, whose philosophy was to assist in the alleviation of the perceived abject poverty and general backwardness of Third World countries.

There has occurred a development within this first version of development media theory from narrow concerns with the diffusion of innovations, persuasion of developing peoples to abandon their anti-development values and mores, to the realisation that there are also external socio-economic constraints on development and that there is the need to search for 'factors which could presumably make development projects more relevant to the needs of the disadvantaged groups'. These realisations gave birth to what has come to be known as development support communication (DSC) (Melkote 1991). This particular tradition has a materialist, mechanistic and instrumental approach to the role of the media in development, its emphasis being to enable the DSC specialist to bridge 'the communication gap between the technical specialists with expertise in specialist areas of knowledge – health matters, agriculture, etc. – and the users who are in need of such knowledge and its specific applications to improve their performance, increase their productivity, improve their health, etc'. (Melkote 1991: 29). We can say, therefore, that this version of development media theory has a practical and instrumental, and not normative, thrust.

The second orientation or version of development media theory is somewhat related to the one above to the extent that its point of departure emphasizes socio-economic development. However, its main emphasis is different, and therefore important to our present project, because it has normative implications for the role of the media in the political sphere of African countries. It brings us to an understanding of how the media was expected, and made, to serve the same interests that worked against democratic practices and abridged fundamental human rights, all in the name of development. The point of departure for this perspective is the acknowledgement that African countries have poor communication infrastructures, professional skills, and production and cultural resources, among other things. They are also heavily dependent on the developed world for technology, some specialized skills and cheap, but expensive to produce, cultural products. These reasons are then used to support the argument that, as a result, the media in Africa are ill-equipped to support a free press and serve the ends of democracy. This type of argument easily degenerates into a prescription that, because they are ill-equipped, the media should not be used for the promotion of democracy and human rights.

In the second orientation, collective ends as opposed to individual ends have been given overriding priority. The implications of this orientation are that the mass media must cooperate by stressing positive, development-inspired news, by ignoring negative societal or oppositionist characteristics and by supporting governmental ideologies and plans. Government ownership and suppression of the media are then justified for the reason that it needs to inform the people about its plans and programmes and to mobilize them for development, using all channels available. African governments have considered it their duty to provide information to their people as a service in much the same way as they provide other social amenities and services. It is also argued that given widespread illiteracy and inadequate political consciousness, a diversity of the sources of information or a multiplicity of voices in the media can only create confusion in the minds of the people, and thus render the task of national building and development more difficult.

We can continue and say that in the propagation of this undemocratic political culture, an active political press is eschewed for the perceived risk that opposing views and dissent may be irresponsible and calculated to undermine stability. It is further felt that opposition elements and critical press may take advantage of the illiteracy of the masses and exploit their ignorance to destabilise the state. A point is made to the effect that since political institutions in developing countries are fragile and any criticism of the government may be interpreted as a challenge to its legitimacy, the media should refrain from scrutinizing the affairs of the government too closely. It is obvious from these observations that African political leaders have found the control, and subservience, of the press as well as other media to be necessary to their exercise of political power, and the use of these media, therefore, has been closely controlled so that they are not used to propagate views and promote interests that are at variance with those defined by the national leadership.

As has been differently put by various writers, in African countries, the press was expected to forego, by way of being open to restrictions, some of its freedoms in order to serve the society's collective interests. (Ansah 1988, 1992; Boyd-Barrett 1982; Golding 1977; Mak'Ochieng, M.O. 1993; McQuail 1987; Mytton, G. 1983; Omwanda 1991; Ziegler and Asante 1992). This is the point made by McQuail (1987: 121) when he refers to the argument that, 'in the interest of development ends, the state has a right to intervene in, or restrict, media operations, and devices of censorship, subsidy and direct control can be justified'. These arguments and their normative implications have been used to justify the adoption of an authoritarian system of political governance, and the concomitant abuse of various human rights and freedoms in general and the freedom of expression in particular. As Ansah (1988: 9) put it: 'the virtual monopolization of the mass media has been explained in terms of the need to ensure that people are not distracted by 'false propaganda', and that all media resources will be harnessed and directed towards national development'.


The third orientation of, development media theory is more in keeping with our present project. This orientation is close to the public sphere theory with its emphasis on freedom of expression and discussion as a means of reaching the best strategies, alternatives and results for and in development. Popular and grassroots participation for socio-economic development is emphasized; but more important, there is an increasing emphasis on freedom of political expression to stimulate constructive debate, and to enable the press to act as a check and watch-dog on abuse of power and violation of human rights. (Ansah 1988, 1992; James 1990;

Omwanda 1991). There is perceived here the need to develop and nurture democratic ideals as human development objectives:

This more humane approach to development underscored the need to go beyond the satisfaction of material needs and pay more attention to the individual human being's need for self fulfilment. Consideration (is) therefore to be given to dimensions such as the equitable distribution of the nation's resources, the establishment of an open, democratic society in which human rights are respected and structures are set up to enable people to participate in decision-making (Ansah 1992: 55).

An argument is being made here for the consideration of socio-economic development and democratisation as two sides of the same coin of human development. According to Rogers (1976) development should be 'a widely participatory process of social change in a society, intended to bring about both social and material advancement including greater equality, freedom and other valued qualities for the majority of the people through their gaining greater control over their environment'. This third version of development media theory is meant as a counter to the second orientation that sanctions authoritarianism for the sake of socioeconomic development. The second version of development media theory made it too easy to claim that a state's interests were at stake at the first sign of legitimate criticism. Indeed, anything could be proclaimed as being against state interest.

As is already evident above, our preferred concept of development also recognizes the need for material development, but more than the others, it puts the emphasis on human dignity and the active involvement and participation of the people in the development process. It puts a premium on the right of participation in decision making. It is our thesis, however, that full and meaningful participation cannot be achieved or ensured in the absence of the right to express oneself freely and frankly. For the purpose of national development and self-development, people should be both able and enabled to share ideas and discuss freely, exchange views, evaluate alternatives and criticize where necessary. One of the functions of communication should be the provision of avenues for social interaction and participation. The mass media of a country wishing to develop, therefore, should provide a forum or platform for collective discussion and the weighing of various options in order to arrive at well considered decisions. In other words, to serve the ends of development, the mass media should provide a sphere for the exchange of comment and criticism regarding public affairs.

The role of the media in a developing country should also be seen in this context of participation, meaning the critical examination, evaluation and report of the relevance, enactment and impact of development. In order to undertake this critical evaluation, it is essential that the media be sufficiently free and independent of governmental control and political pressures. Narrinder Aggarwala (1979: 181) states that the role of the journalist inspired by the development theory is to critically examine, evaluate and report the relevance of a development project to national and local needs, the difference between a planned scheme and its actual implementation, and the difference between its impact on people as claimed by government officials and as it actually is. This observation is informed by the belief that social and political criticism and public debate are not, and should not be seen as, necessarily disruptive. In prescribing such a role as suggested above, or engaging in a critique to see whether such a role has been played, we recommend the theory of the public sphere.


In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas (1989) argues that it was the development of competitive market capitalism that provided the conditions in eighteenth century Britain for the development of both the theory and practice, of liberal democracy. This it did by making available to a new political class, the bourgeoisie, both the time and the material resources to create a network of institutions within civil society such as newspapers, learned and debating societies, publishing enterprises, libraries, universities and polytechnics and museums, within which a new political force, public opinion, could come into existence. As a result of the dynamics of market capitalism, access to the public sphere, hitherto restricted, was open to all since the cost of entry for each individual was dramatically lowered by the growth in scale of the market. As a result, the public sphere took on a universalistic aspect.

An important argument developed by Habermas is that the public sphere came to obey the rules of rational discourse. Political views and decisions in the sphere were open not to the play of power, but to that of argument based upon evidence, and its concern was not private interest but the public good. It was thus constituted as the space for rational and universalistic politics distinct from both the economy and the State. However, Habermas went on to argue that the public sphere was destroyed by the very sources that had brought it into existence. The development of the capitalist economy in the direction of monopoly capitalism, among other things, led to an uneven distribution of wealth, to rising entry costs to the public sphere. These trends represented the development and rise of direct control by private and State interests of the flow of public information in the interest, not of rational discourse, but of manipulation.

Structural Transformation has recently been widely criticized. (Calhoun 1992; Curran 1991a; Fraser 1992; Garnham 1992; Habermas 1992; Schudson 1992). Curran argues that the newspapers celebrated by Habermas were engines of propaganda for the bourgeoisie rather than the embodiment of disinterested rationality, and that their version of reason was challenged by radical papers whose other project was developing a set of ideas that generalized the interests of a class excluded from the political system. He also makes reference to the fact that the 'independent' eighteenth century press was caught up in an elaborate web of faction fighting, financial corruption and ideological management – a far cry, in his opinion, from Habermas's idealized portrayal of the eighteenth-century press as the embodiment of reasoned discourse of private individuals.

A more important observation by Curran (1991a) is that a significant part of the press was subject to some form of political control by organized interests from the eighteenth century through to the twentieth century. For him, this refutes the contrast made by Habermas between the early press as an extension of the rational-critical debate among private citizens, and the later press as the manipulative agency of collectivized politics. Curran continues that Habermas's characterization of the modern media is positively misleading because his implicit contrast between the demotic manipulation of the modern media and the ratiocination of the eighteenth century press is difficult to reconcile with historical reality.

Just to briefly mention a few other critics; Craig Calhoun (1992) takes issue with Habermas's neglect of social movements by his conforming too closely to the liberal bourgeois ideal, in imagining the public sphere simply as a realm into which individuals bring their ideas and critiques. He argues that social movements are crucial to reorienting the agenda of public discourse, bringing new issues to the fore. Moreover, social movements are occasions for the structuring not just of issues but of identities. Nancy Fraser (1992) brings our attention to the exclusion of women from the official public sphere and the privatisation of gender politics. For her, Habermas's account reveals mostly a bourgeois, masculinist conception of the public sphere which also subordinated workers, peoples of colour, and gays and lesbians.


All the above criticism granted, most, if not all, of the above writers have subscribed to the import of the theory of the public sphere: Garnham (1990) observes that 'the concept of the public sphere and the principles it embodies represent an Ideal Type against which we can judge existing social arrangements, and which we can attempt to embody in concrete institutions in the light of the reigning historical circumstances'. Habermas himself argues that the public sphere, 'could only be realized today on an altered basis as a rational reorganization of social and political power under the mutual control of rival organizations committed to the public sphere in their internal structure as well as in their relations with the state and each other'. (Quoted in Garnham, N. 1990). Schudson (1992: 147) prefers a concern with Habermas's model of the public sphere not so much as a 'paradigm for analyzing historical change', but more as 'a normative category for political critique'. Garnham (1992) summarizes these concerns thus 'Criticism levelled at Habermas's model of the public sphere are all cogent and serve as a necessary basis for the development and refinement of Habermas's original approach. However, they do not detract from the continuing virtues of the central thrust of that approach.'

In fact, in one of his latest contributions, in which he addresses some of the criticism levelled at Structural Transformation, Habermas (1992: 451) stresses the importance of what he now calls the political public sphere to democratic theory and praxis. This importance is encapsulated in 'the concept of deliberative democracy' otherwise called 'the discourse-centred concept of democracy'. The expectation deriving from a discourse-centred theoretical approach, which obtains rational results, is based on the interplay between a constitutionally instituted formation of the political will and the spontaneous flow of communication unsubverted by power, within a public sphere that is not geared toward decision making but toward discovery and problem resolution.

In this later formulation by Habermas, emphasis is put on 'the conduciveness of specific processes of the democratic formation of opinion and will'. It is his submission that the political public sphere is appropriate as the quintessential concept denoting all those conditions of communication under which there can come into being a discursive formation of opinion and will, on the part of a public composed of the citizens of a state. This is why it is suitable as the fundamental concept of a theory of democracy whose intent is normative. A public sphere that functions politically requires the institutional guarantees of the constitutional state. But it requires more: 'it also needs the supportive spirit of cultural traditions and patterns of socialization, of the political culture, of a populace accustomed to freedom'. (Habermas 1992: 453).


At independence, the general agreement was that the broadcast media would be accessible to proponents of diverse political perspectives. African members of the legislative Council had argued for that right. As a result, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Ordinance (No. 24 of 1961) had specifically required for the corporation to provide an 'independent and impartial broadcasting service of information, education and entertainment' and 'to keep a fair balance in all respects in the allocation of broadcast hours between different political view points'. In compliance with these provisions, the KBC adopted an election policy for the May 1963 election designed to give all parties access to radio. Fifteen 14-minutes segments were allocated to the three parties, Kanu (Kenya African National Union), Kadu (Kenya African Democratic Union) and APP (African People's Party), in proportion to the number of candidates slated by nomination day.

In principle, there was to be no censorship by the KBC, but all scripts were to be submitted in advance and pre-recorded to enable the corporation to check for libel, sedition or anything contrary to the laws of the land. The order in which the segments were broadcast was to be determined by the KBC by ballot. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (Nationalization) Act (No. 12 of 1964) retained the above provisions with respect to a fair balance in the allocation of airtime between different political viewpoints. Daniel arap Moi, then opposition Kadu MP, had sounded a warning saying that, 'I hope the Government will not this organization as a means of propaganda to suppress the opposition or other people who would like to say what they want to say. ' (Official Record, Kenya National Asssembly, 25 June 1964). The KBC then became the Voice of Kenya (VOK).

It soon became apparent that the government's use of the VOK to popularize its programs and perspectives was to take precedence over its obligations to keep a fair party-political balance. Members of the opposition, backbenchers, and even some ministers found it increasingly difficult to obtain access to the public through the broadcast media. Kenya's first Minister in charge of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Achieng Oneko, saw the role of communication in terms of national building. Under his leadership the VOK was purposefully used to consolidate support for Kanu and the governmet in power. It was used to advise and guide the government to ensure that the government spoke with one voice to the public. This was deemed necessary to avoid conflicting statements from different departments and thus avoid popular confusion and potential instability.

Tom Mboya, then Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, clearly articulated the developmental agenda for the broadcast media. Contributing to the KBC Nationalization Bill, he said that 'The government intends to use the Voice of Kenya for the purpose of building, strengthening, consolidating the new nation of Kenya and educating its citizens to understand their duties, their responsibilities, their privileges, their opportunities and the role they can play in making the nation what all of us want it to be.' In his address to the IPI in Paris on 17 May 1962, Mboya suggested that 'freedom of the press' might have to be redefined in the African context. He argued that for all the value the press placed on liberty and self-determination, it had, in fact, been hostile to the struggle for self-determination in East and Central Africa. As a result Africans were asking what freedom of the press means, 'does it include licence to do and say what they please, even if it means directly or indirectly wrecking all our efforts at consolidating our dearly won independence or our efforts for economic reconstruction' (Mboya 1970: 140).

Kenya's second development plan described the VOK as 'an essential instrument in Government's programme for building a prosperous and united nation' (Kenya, Development Plan, 1966-70). The Ndegwa Commission of 1971 stated that 'The Ministry of Information has the wider responsibility for the public image of the Government as a whole. It projects and presents to the wananchi (the citizens) the policies and achievements of the Government. In doing so, it must work in harmony with all Ministries and Departments.'

In 1981, contributing to a motion to start a Kanu newspaper, Oloo Aringo, then in charge of the MIB, had said that the government had advocated a free press not from weakness but in the belief that the 'free flow of ideas enhances a healthy society', but added that 'freedom is limited by our national philosophy of promoting national unity, national integration, socio-economic development and our cultural heritage. We have defined that very precisely and expect newspapers to walk within that context of our national committment'. In general, the Kenyan public has regularly been reminded that their constitutionally protected freedoms have 'natural limitations', that is, one's conduct must not 'infringe on the right of others or threaten their security', and that 'freedom of the individual is better achieved and more greatly enjoyed when, and only when, it operates within the boundaries of the common good'. (Kenya Times, April 24, 1984)

The above policy positions about the role of the media have had adverse consequences for access on the part of opposition political voices. For example, no provisions were made to give Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) leaders an opportunity to speak to the nation on radio and television during the mid-term 'Little General Election' of May 1966. Quite the opposite, extraordinary administrative efforts were used to kill the opposition. In December 1966, Luk Obok, KPU MP for Alego, introduced a motion in parliament titled 'Unfair Treatment of Opposition'. He alleged that the VOK was being used to conduct anti-KPU propaganda, and had refused to publicize any KPU activities only mentioning the party when someone resigned from it.

As a government department, the VOK received all its funds for recurrent and capital expenditures from the national treasury. Cuts in government expenditures which have affected all departments were obviously extended to the VOK. Particularly, shortage of foreign exchange placed severe constraints on departments like the VOK which relied almost entirely on imported equipment for capital developments as well as for replacing and upgrading production equipment. In this respect, lack of substantial financial support derives from very real fiscal constraints. Kenya's economy being a dependent and developing one, there has simply not been enough money to meet all the developmental and other demands on the nation's purse.

Kenya News Agency (KNA) journalists, main news suppliers for VOK, have seldom had their own transportation. As a result, they have tended to attend and cover meetings called by the Provincial and District Commissioners to which official transportation is made available. Politicians who want to be assured of press coverage have found it necessary to send vehicles to collect journalists. Clearly, with its limited resources the VOK could not possibly attend and fairly report on all the nation's political and other activities. On the other hand, the VOK was not permitted to become self-supporting, apparently to prevent it from becoming an independent and potentially challenging voice. In the absence of adequate government subventions for program production, the VOK was obliged to make arrangements to obtain program materials from external sources, commercial sponsors, private voluntary agencies, and religious establishments.

In 1989, the Kenya Government set up the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, KBC, a semi-autonomous commercial entity to take over responsibility for the running of VOK. This was meant to improve it technically without placing an additional financial burden on the government. However, things have not changed much with regard to political control and pressures. The KBC is governed by a board whose membership comprise ministerial appointees or senior bureaucrats, and is chaired by a presidential appointee. (KBC Act, section 4). Most of these appointments are political. The KBC radio and television are practically Kanu-government loudspeakers, access to which is almost non-existent for those with views and messages that are different from the official Kanu-government views and positions.

In the run-up to the 1992 multi-party General Election, Ford Kenya filed a suit in the High Court seeking to compel the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) to give equal airtime on radio and television to all political parties in the country. The party were also seeking to prevent the KBC from campaigning for KANU and its President by giving them extensive exposure to the detriment of other parties. They were looking for constitutional protection against adverse and discriminatory publications and pronouncements by and through the the KBC against them on behalf of the President of KANU. In their submissions, they argued that the publication of news, comments and music in praise of the President of Kanu and its officials was discriminatory, unlawful and wasteful. (The Standard, Oct. 15, 1992; see also Andreassen et al. 1993).

In the case of broadcasting in Kenya, therefore, it is fair to say that access to radio and television for a diversity of political opinions and views is hamstrung by a monolithic and authoritarian grip of the ruling Kanu-government. As observed by Heathe (1990: 3): 'Broadcasters privately complain that political interference makes it impossible for them to meet standards of impartial newscasting as required by professional norms as well as broadcast law. ' When launching a medium wave radio transmitting station, part of a modernization program funded by Japan, President Moi said that 'Irresponsible broadcasting and journalism can lead to national disintegration and loss of national identity… The use of radio and T.V. in promoting cohesion in our society, economic development and national unity cannot be over emphasised. ' (The Standard, August 19, 1992). Legitimate as these goals are, as we observed above, it is such argumentation as this that is invariably used to cow critical journalists into toeing the establishment line.

In their appraisal of the 1992 General Elections in Kenya, Andreassen et al. (1993) had the following to say about the findings of an evaluation of the broadcast media's coverage of the contending political parties:

It concluded that news coverage, particularly that of KBC, was heavily biased in favour of the ruling party KANU. It was found that not only did KANU receive disproportionately more air-time than the opposition, but also that news items about KANU were invariably positive and those about opposition parties always negative, (p. 18–19).

The Kenyan Daily Press as a Political Public Sphere

Compared to the public broadcast media, Kenya's daily newspapers present a somewhat different picture (see Mak'Ochieng 1993 Chapters 4 and 6). Daily newspapers in Kenya are published both in English and in Swahili, the country's African national and official language. However, it is the English dailies that are most widely read and circulated. There are three English national dailies in Kenya. Two of these, the Standard and the Nation, have majority shares, and therefore effective ownership in foreign hands. Kenya Times is run by the ruling party Kanu. The biggest and everpresent source of criticism of Standard and Nation has been their ownership status. This 'absentee' foreign ownership, it is argued, works against the interests of Kenya because it dictates the propagation of foreign ideologies, and interferes with the freedom of the local editors in their employment. Some politicians actually take it as 'the greatest obstacle to freedom of the press in Kenya'.

Another strong argument against foreign ownership has been (is) that the major interest of the press organisation so owned is to make profit. This profit motif is seen as taking precedent over the national interest. According to the editors of the private dailies, though it is true that their press may be interested in making profit, this is not their major interest. The needs of readers and the national interest are advanced as the prime concerns. It is also argued that newspaper ownership has become more spread with the floating of shares to Kenyans. This, coupled with the fact that it is mostly Kenyans who are to be found in editorial positions, it is claimed, mitigate the negative and censorial aspects of owner-influence. On the question of self-censorship, editors do not deny it, but readily attribute it to political interference and the concomitant instinct to survive. This instinct is borne of the unpredictable nature of the political climate (see especially HRW 1991: 185–216; Mak'Ochieng 1993; Ochieng 1992 and Tostensen and Scott 1987: 118).

The above concerns on the part of Kanu politicians partly explains why the party found its own press. It was believed that a press owned by the party, because it is indigenous and because it would be answerable to the party, would be the answer to the politicians' press-publicity problems. However, for similar reasons, there was concern by others that a party press would be merely a propaganda machine. Further, it was felt that this being a ruling party might hurt 'freedom of the press', should the party press monopolize advertisement and news from the government. It is this realisation that made Ng'weno, an indigenous newspaper publisher opine that a foreign-owned press, though not the best answer to the country's interests, would be preferred by readers to the ruling-party press (Mak'Ochieng 1993).

Since its launching in 1983, the ruling party's Kenya Times has been beset with problems not unlike those that faced the private daily newspapers. The party therefore found it imperative in 1987 to solicit the financial and organizational assistance of none other than Robert Maxwell in order to save the paper from imminent fall. Ironically, in doing this, foreign interest became a factor even in the ruling party's press. The relationship between the party and the government was to prove consequential for the paper's professional and financial position. Public servants found their way into the paper's employment bringing with them a bureaucratic ethos in management. This, plus the failure by government departments to foot their advertisement bills in the paper, has contributed to the litany of financial and organizational woes at Kenya Times.

Our study of the impact of political change on press performance in Kenya during 1990–1992 (Mak'Ochieng 1993), shows that before the onslaught of the changes and pressures that put an end to Kanu's monopoly of politics, the daily press in Kenya was under immense political pressure not to allow the views and opinions of those who directly challenged this monopoly. However, there were intermittent critical news items and editorials which took issue with the way the government ran its affairs. This was true for both the private dailies and for the party one. This changed when multi-party politics was forced on Kanu by a combined force of internal popular pressure and external donor conditions. During this period (1990-1991), the two private dailies became more accessible to a fairly wide spectrum of political and other opinions. A change of immense significance was the fact that from December 1991, direct criticism of President Moi himself, hitherto taboo, became common in the dailies. Kenya Times, on the other hand, has become a party mouthpiece; uncritical towards Kanu and very hostile towards the opposition parties and all those with opinions that challenge official government deeds and ideas.

Connected to the above mentioned problem of self-censorship, are two other problems; one to do with monetary gain and the other, with tribalism. On the one hand, some Kenyan journalists have been accused of censoring their work because they have been bribed into silence. According to a prominent columnist, Wahome Mutahi, 'It is no secret that some Kenyan journalists both low and high are open to bribery in terms of money, land and other favours and in the end sacrifice their professional dignity.' (The Standard, May 25, 1992). On the other hand, some Kanu politicians made serious charges against the Nation Group of Newspapers, claiming that the company practices tribalism in both its employment policy and coverage, and comment on news events. The Nation was accused of having set out on a tribal crusade to champion a pro-Kikuyu and pro-Opposition cause (Kenya Times, Oct. 15, 1992). As one news magazine observed, 'In a country where tribal sentiments are so strongly held, however, the highly visible world of journalism cannot escape closer scrutiny of possible tribal inclinations every so often.'

On the average, however, one can say that the daily press more than the broadcast media is more accessible to relatively more diverse political views and opinions. For this medium, political control and pressures can be singled out to have been its main source of constraint. Of course there are other factors; mainly ownership interference, the profitmotif or cash nexus, lack of qualified personnel, a dearth of newsprint or its high cost etc. We must also qualify our observation by saying that to get a more balanced feel of the Kenyan political terrain, one has to read both the party daily plus at least one of the two private ones. But this is true mostly for those who can read and understand English and can afford to buy the daily newspapers. And this is what makes the democratization of the broadcast media in Kenya an imperative and urgent matter.


From the above discussions, it is our view that the media in any African country should play two significant roles in order to actively facilitate the democratic process. First, the African media should be a political sphere or public forum accessible to all contending political players, groups and interests whose objective is the deliberation of common public issues or affairs, and the framing and influencing of public policy. In this regard, the African media should also seek to redress the imbalance of power in society by broadening access to public domain in these societies where elites have privileged access to it. Secondly, it should be an active, involved player or participant in such deliberations. This should be in the way prescribed by Curran (1991a) in the tradition of a radical democratic theory, very much akin to the Fourth Estate role. The African media should facilitate the functioning of representative organizations but also expose their internal operations to public scrutiny and the play of public opinion. They should therefore expose wrongdoing, correct injustice, subject to critical scrutiny the exercise of power in all its manifestations.

For it to be able to fulfil the above functions, the African media as a public sphere should be free from political and economic constraints and pressures emanating both from the state and from organized and vested economic interests. Some of these pressures can easily be effected when the media is owned by the state, political party or by private capital. In the case of public ownership by the state, the media should be organized and run in a way that greatly minimizes political interference. In the case of other modes of ownership, the media system should be organized such that most interested parties have access to at least some medium of public communication; but especially in the publicly recognized main medium. In Kenya, and most of Africa, it is the radio that can justifiably claim to be the effective and publicly recognized main media.

In order for the broadcast media to facilitate democracy in Kenya, there is an urgent need to free them from political influences and patronage. The KBC board need to be non-partisan, and journalists ought to adhere more to professional standards than to the dictates and vagaries of the ruling political establishment. The running of the public radio and television institutions must be restructured so that the majority of Kenyans who are reached by these media can listen to contending political and other views. At present, alternative radio news and political views can only be heard on foreign radios, especially the BBC world service and radio Deutchewelle. There is need therefore to encourage and allow the operation also of local private and commercial radio channels.


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