Draconian Media Censorship in Kenya? Ruto Ready to Walk Trump’s Path

Today is Inauguration Day in Kenya. As William Ruto has taken the oath of the presidential office, Kenya News media houses watch with bated breath to see if the incoming administration will respect freedom of the press as enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution.

William Ruto Inauguration Ceremony

According to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization,

“Although guaranteed by the 2010 constitution, respect for press freedom in Kenya is highly dependent on the political and economic context.”

It is a known fact that many presidents have a love-hate relationship with the press. The role of a journalist in covering a president is to ask questions and, while at it, hold leaders accountable and report back to their audience.

Journalists ask tough questions that often leave leaders feeling uncomfortable. Journalists put leaders on the hot seat and speak truth to power. 

While some leaders are good at thinking on their feet and seem to always have the right answers, even they can be caught off-guard. 

For this reason, presidents hire a press spokesperson who fields questions from the press on behalf of the president. Presidents also hire speechwriters to manage gaffes typically present during off-the-cuff or impromptu speeches.

Draconian Media Censorship in Kenya? Ruto Ready to Walk Trump's Path

Kenya’s Ruto Goes For Media Censorship Even Before His Inauguration

Following the Supreme Court of Kenya’s decision to uphold the win of Kenya’s William Ruto to be the fifth president, William Ruto addressed Kenyans from his official residence surrounded by family, surrogates, leaders from his coalition – the Kenya Kwanza Alliance – and the press. He then decided to take a few questions from the media.

A journalist from Royal Media Services asked about his agenda for the first one hundred days in office.

William Ruto responded with a counter-question in what seemed like a sarcastic tone, “And how is Inooro TV, by the way?” to the amusement of the crowd before “assuring” the journalist that “you will be treated equally like all other Kenyans.”

William Ruto also said that “We do not harbor grudges because we are democrats.”

Needless to say, the president-elect did not answer the journalist’s question and said he would “make a statement on my inauguration.” 

The president-elect did not stop there but proceeded to ask, “Where are my good friends from Citizen?” (Citizen TV is a sister station to Inooro TV). A journalist from Citizen TV asked a question, but rather than answer her question, the president-elect called out two journalists from Citizen TV by name, even though they were not present at the event. 

The journalist’s questions on how the president-elect planned to fight graft were met with jeers from the crowd, like a scene from a Trump presser or a Trump campaign rally. 

Clearly, they knew where the president-elect was coming from. William Ruto did not answer the reporter’s questions either but stated that he would be issuing a comprehensive statement later. The president-elect was either caught off guard and deflected responding, as leaders often do, or was preoccupied with vindictiveness.

 

Interestingly, since then, the president-elect has made remarks about his agenda even before his inauguration speech. For example, during a thanksgiving ceremony at Maya Stadium, William Ruto stated that he would be dealing with miraa (khat) cartels to revive the Kenyan economy.

Draconian Media Censorship in Kenya? Ruto Ready to Walk Trump's Path

William Ruto Walking Trump’s Path? Media Apathy Won’t Lead Ruto Anywhere

Former US President Donald Trump had a volatile relationship with journalists. Trump appeared to perceive any adverse reporting about him or his administration as personal criticism of his character. It did not help that he came from the television reality world – The Apprentice – that presented a perfect persona of the former president.

Reportedly, Trump spent many hours watching cable news during his time in the White House. Many times, he would tweet his reactions in real time and held nothing back. He referred to the mainstream media as “fake news” and directed his supporters to watch news channels that only covered him favorably. 

He often refused to take questions from journalists representing some media houses, especially those he perceived as misrepresenting him. Other times he verbally attacked journalists in an attempt to humiliate them and did not stop his audience from booing journalists.

Besides Trump’s rants on social media – especially Twitter before his account was permanently suspended for January 6 incitement – there were many other events that summed up Trump’s relationship with journalists.

Draconian Media Censorship in Kenya? Ruto Ready to Walk Trump's Path

The White House Correspondents Dinner and Trump’s Rigidness with Media

This annual event is organized by the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) – an organization of journalists covering the White House and the president of the United States. 

The group raises money for scholarships and supports the U.S. Constitution’s freedom of the press. The sitting president traditionally attends the annual dinner and is covered by the news media. The president typically adopts a light tone in addressing the audience and promotes a free press. The president may also be the object of jokes that come from invited entertainers or comedians.

President Trump often appeared stoic to the public and did not appreciate jokes. He did not attend any of the annual White House Correspondents Dinners during his years in the White House and subsequently barred members of his staff and administration from attending the event. Interestingly, he attended one in 2011 when President Obama was in office and became a target of a joke by Obama.

There is no shortage of instances of Trump’s attack on journalists. See this one to see an example of Trump’s rigidness with the media:

Or even this, when he makes sexist remarks,

Kenya Journalists Face Consequential Times

William Ruto’s supporters may say that his remarks on Royal Media Services journalists were made in jest since, after all, the President-elect was laughing when he did this. Unfortunately, that intention may be construed as a dog whistle by some who may target these journalists or the places where they work because the President-elect called them out.

It also seemed vindictive because he did not call out journalists from other Kenya News media houses that appear to have taken friendlier stances toward his political coalition or his campaign.

Indeed, the president-elect must be advised that in such instances, it is not the intention of the president that matters but how it is perceived by his audience. Many comments from those who viewed this interaction online showed that they supported William Ruto and felt that he was justified in calling out Royal Media Services because of how they covered his campaign.

Left unchecked, such responses to questions from the media could go from subtle to full-blown eruptions, as seen with Donald Trump. And for those who feel William Ruto should be excused because this was his maiden speech as president-elect, William Ruto has been Kenya’s Deputy President for the past decade and certainly has sufficient experience in dealing with the media. 

William Ruto also held previous cabinet positions and is not new to public service. Also, the president is seen as speaking from a bully pulpit on a megaphone, and how he treats the press trickles down to how members of his administration treat the press.

And in an interesting development, Kenyans learned that the president-elect’s inauguration would be exclusively Multichoice Kenya Ltd. through DStv, and other media houses would get feeds and pick signals from them. This move by the incoming administration is unconstitutional, controlling, retrogressive, and reminisces of a dark time in the history of Kenya when the government infringed upon the rights of citizens and the independence of institutions. 

After Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the new president was upset with the media coverage, especially when they compared crowd sizes with Obama’s inauguration. A day later, Sean Spicer, Trump’s then press secretary, chastised journalists for their coverage of the inauguration. 

“This was the largest audience to ever witness the inauguration period, both in person and around the globe.”

(Trump’s White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer)

Perhaps William Ruto, like Trump, is wary of the media controlling the narrative of his inauguration. 

Journalism can be risky, and some have paid with their lives. Sadly, retaliatory killings of journalists worldwide continue to be on the rise. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2020, at least 21 journalists were killed in retaliation for their work, a number higher than those killed in combat or on other assignments.

Kenya ranked 69 out of 180 countries on the 2022 World Press Freedom Index. The Media Council of Kenya has called for a review of policies and laws that infringe on press freedom.

Ruto needs to understand that freedom of press is a basic necessity for a progressive country/

Journalists have been attacked in Kenya while conducting their business. During the just concluded elections period, a reporter for The Nation sustained a machete wound to his left leg when he was attacked by two masked men on a motorcycle who intercepted him as he returned home in Migori, Kenya. The reporter told RSF that the attack was related to his political reporting. 

Ruto Needs to Team-up with Odinga to Make Kenya a Governable Country

The country of Kenya was becoming ungovernable even before the start of William Ruto’s term. Raila Odinga has already refused to attend the inauguration ceremony of William Ruto, citing his deep concerns about the poor election management and widespread voter fraud.

Draconian Media Censorship in Kenya? Ruto Ready to Walk Trump's Path

Now, William Ruto has already demonstrated that he will rule the country as a dictatorship by maintaining a poor relationship with the media. Media oppression in Africa is not hidden, and William Ruto’s ambitions to kill media outlets and be uncooperative with Odinga will only make matters worse.

As Raila Odinga watches for post presidential election strategy and braces himself to win the next elections, Ruto needs to be thoughful while making his election strategy.

Only a government of unity can bring favorable results for Kenya, especially at a time when the ruling party may not have enough power to pass all the legislation single-handedly. As they will need the opposition members for lawmaking, the media dictatorship and anti-Azimio policies of William Ruto will only make lawmaking worse, while Kenyans will be suffering miserably.

Final Thoughts

Leaders must respect and protect press freedoms. During this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner – the first in six years since President Obama left office – President Biden praised the role of journalism in American democracy.

“I say this from the bottom of my heart, that you, the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century. You are the guardians of truth.”

(Biden) 

It can be said the media’s coverage of President Trump helped the electorate understand who he was, what he stood for, and why President Biden was a better choice for the United States. Any president that attacks journalists does so at their own peril. 

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