Kenyan media were suffering from pre-existing financial instability before the COVID-19 pandemic as they struggled to come to terms with digital disruption. Despite these challenges, the media are still a trusted source of news and the choices available to consumers continue to expand.
Kenya leads the region in internet connectivity, mobile phone use, and social media engagement and this in turn has made the country a pioneer in both digital consumption and innovation. Our survey shows that most of our Kenyan sample (83%) use a smartphone rather than a computer to access news each week and the GSMA estimates that Kenya will have seven million new mobile subscribers by 2025.1
For most Kenyans, though, free-to-air digital terrestrial TV still remains the most popular medium – with radio also reaching significant proportion of the population via more than 150 licensed stations in multiple languages.
Media ownership is concentrated among the political elite, reinforcing the perception that the media are ‘captured’ by political and corporate interests to the detriment of their public interest role. A study conducted by the Media Council of Kenya showed that just ten media owners – including the Nation Media Group, The Standard Group, Radio Africa Group (Star+), the Royal Media Services Group (Citizen TV, Citizen Radio, etc.), and Mediamax (People Daily, K24TV, Kameme FM) – dominate the landscape.2
Kenyan media are considered to be more vibrant when compared to others in the region. However, several laws restrict press freedom and incidents of harassment of journalists are rarely investigated. This and the high dependency on advertising leads to self-censorship as the media are often afraid to ask hard questions about corporate failures and government corruption.
The Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act of 2018, which criminalises falsehoods and misinformation and penalises those convicted with a fine of US$50,000 or a maximum of two years’ imprisonment, has been used to harass journalists, bloggers, and other activists who have been critical of the government’s handling of the new Coronavirus. The establishment of a multi-agency team to monitor, document, and enforce compliance with media broadcasting laws and social media guidance ahead of the 2022 general election, has also had a chilling effect on press freedom. At least ten journalists and digital content creators have since been arrested or threatened with prosecution under the provisions of the Act. They have been accused of spreading false and alarming information on social media about the new Coronavirus.3 At least ten others were arrested under the Public Order Act for allegedly flouting the curfew, even though journalists have been identified as essential service providers and therefore exempted from the curfew restrictions.
So-called ‘Fake news’ is a phenomenon of deep concern for consumers, with the majority (75%) of those surveyed agreeing that they found it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake when it comes to news on the internet. Over half of our sample indicated that they had come across false or misleading information about health/COVID-19 (56%) or about politics (63%) in the last week.
Restrictions around COVID-19 have affected the sales of print newspapers, partly due to fear of infection from surface contact and deprioritisation of spend on news in household budgets. Media organisations have reported losses and some, like the Nation and the Standard, are pinning their hopes on the growth of digital subscriptions, even though paying for news online is not popular with consumers. A digital tax introduced in January 2021, which is charged on subscription-based media, including news, magazines, and journals, may further dampen the expected growth. More than 300 journalists have lost their jobs as part of media cost-saving measures and those that remain have had to accept hefty salary cuts (between 30% and 50%).4
The Kenya Editors Guild and the Media Council of Kenya have suggested the creation of a media sustainability fund, but others worry that such a fund could make the media even more vulnerable to pressure from politicians, risking further undermining independence. An early casualty of the changing business circumstances is HiviSasa.com, a digital pioneer that closed after it was unable to identify a viable advertisement-led business model.
Several local media organisations have partnered with international news organisations such as the BBC, VOA, DW to re-transmit their broadcasts. The Nation Media Group also joined the rapidly expanding podcast market when it launched Afripods, a new platform designed to showcase African content.
ICFJ Fellow and director of the Africa Women Journalism Project5
These data are based on an online survey of mainly English-speaking, online news users in Kenya – a subset of a larger, more diverse, media market. Respondents were generally more affluent, younger (18–50 only), have higher levels of formal education, and are more likely to live in cities than the overall Kenyan population. Findings should not be taken to be nationally representative.
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Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
Trust in media is relatively high by international standards, with 61% saying they trust most news most of the time. By contrast, trust is lower in the news found in social media or search engines. KTN News, Citizen TV, The Daily Nation, and NTV are the most trusted sources of news.
1 GSMA, ‘Mobile Economy Africa’, 2020. https://www.gsma.com/mobileeconomy/sub-saharan-africa/
2 Council of Media of Kenya, Media Status Report, May 2012. https://issuu.com/mediacouncilkenya/docs/status_of_media_in_kenya_report