The media has traditionally played an agenda-setting role during elections across the world. Kenya’s media is billed to be among the most independent in Africa. In the 2022 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Kenya was ranked 69th out of 180, up from position 102 in 2021.

On Tuesday (August 9th, 2022), Kenya goes to the poll in a transition election that will see President Uhuru Kenyatta retire after serving two five-year terms. Four candidates are seeking to replace him at Statehouse, Nairobi. The front runners are former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Azimio Coalition and the current Deputy President William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza Coalition.

Mr Kenyatta has thrown his weight behind the candidature of Mr Odinga who was previously a hard-fought opponent.

According to the latest opinion polls, Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto are neck-to-neck in the race with only eight points separating them.

The media’s role in the electoral process is a crucial one. Starting from the campaign period to the relaying of results and announcement of the winner in case there is no re-run. Looking back at the election period, there is a lot that can be learned from how the media carried themselves during this period, as well as issues of concern.

Media landscape

Let’s first look at Kenya’s complex media landscape. Unlike many African countries where state-owned media control the landscape, Kenya’s most influential media houses are private-owned.

The country boasts of a rich media landscape of more than 100 radio stations, 50 television channels and four daily newspapers with a wide circulation.

While the country prides itself in its vibrant media which is independent of state control, most of it is still owned by politicians or politically connected families. In the current elections, the Chairman of Kenya’s biggest media house in the electronic media segment, Royal Media Services, is also one of Mr Odinga’s senior advisors and financiers.

The Kenyatta family who have recently acquired significant shares in the Aga Khan-owned Nation Media Group that owns Kenya’s leading newspaper Daily Nation are also backing Mr Odinga’s candidature.

The second largest daily newspaper, The Standard, is owned by the Standard Media Group which is now in the hands of Mr Gideon Moi, son of former President Daniel Moi and Party Leader of KANU. KANU is one of the parties in the Azimio Coalition. Both media houses also own a string of top-rated radio and TV channels.

The Kenyatta family also own Mediamax Limited, the parent company of People Daily newspapers, which is circulated for free to motorists in all major cities, K24 TV and two radio stations.

The presidential debate

As is the norm in many democracies, Kenyan media houses usually come together in election years to produce and broadcast the presidential debate series. This year, the series held debates for the positions of Nairobi Governor, Deputy President and President.

Despite only four candidates running for president, the organizers of the debate split the Deputy President and Presidential debates into two based on the candidate’s popularity. This led to an uproar from a section of the candidates.

Mr Odinga also snubbed the debate saying “he could not share a stage with a corrupt individual (referring to Dr Ruto). ”  It is important to note that in previous debates, candidates who felt that they had an upper hand, especially with the backing of the state always absconded the debate.

While there is little the organizers could do to force the candidates to participate, the past experiences should serve as lessons in organizing future debates and work towards instilling confidence in both the candidates and the public. Participating in the debate is not a legal requirement but it can still be entrenched as an important tradition in our democracy.

Individually, some of the media houses also held debates for other races including the gubernatorial, senatorial and members of parliament. Across the country, specifically vernacular radio stations provided a platform for candidates to speak directly with the electorate in rural parts of the country, selling their agenda.

National coverage 

With the campaign season coming to a close this past weekend, the big question is, did the intricate web of political affiliations and media ownership play a role in the coverage of the presidential election, especially at the crucial last minute?

While this is the first time Kenya’s election is not going to be won based on tribal alignments, media coverage still focused more on personalities than on the party agenda, especially with electronic media. Other than on the days the leading camps unveiled their manifestos, prime-time news still focused on what the candidates said about each other.

At the time of unveiling the manifestos, the undecided vote stood at 16%, but that number had reduced to under 2% by the time of the last opinion poll. Did the media have any influence on this undecided vote, and was it based on coverage of their manifestos, the presidential debate or was it purely on the personality clash promoted by the media?

In June 2022, the Media Council of Kenya published a report that indicated that the Azimio Coalition presidential candidate was receiving more coverage in the press compared to the rest of the candidates. In the same month, Mr Ruto slammed media houses for being biased in their coverage of the presidential elections.

While there are many factors that affect media coverage, including how candidates package themselves and the quality of their communication teams, the media can still go out of their way to ensure that the share of voice is fair for all candidates in an election even if not equal.

The perception of bias even where not accurate threatens not just the integrity of the electoral process and the media, it also puts the lives of journalists covering elections at risk. Supporters of politicians claiming bias might begin profiling journalists, even leading to physical attacks against them.

These are fears shared by Linus Kaikai, the group editorial director at RMS. He says “the problem journalists are facing right now is profiling. Profiling of journalists in election years is becoming an entrenched culture. Our (RMS) journalists are being profiled as favouring Azimio Coalition for the simple reason that our chairman and proprietor has declared his preference and is actively taking part in the campaigns for Raila Odinga. ”

It would be important to see a comprehensive study into how the media covered this election, and hopefully daw some lessons going forward.

Cover Photo: File/Denish Ochieng’