Kenya 2022: Raila and Ruto are poaching star journalists as the independent media declines

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Wednesday, 30 March 2022 15:18, updated on Wednesday, 17 August 2022 17:56

Kenya's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Odinga poses for a photo with former cabinet minister and presidential candidate Ruto as they attend peace prayers at the Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi
Kenya's presidential candidate Raila Odinga (R) poses for a photo with other leading presidential candidate William Ruto at the Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

With less than six months before one of the tightest presidential elections in Kenya’s history, the two main contenders have recruited journalists for leading roles in their campaign.

This is part of a wider co-option of journalists and civic activists by politicians to blunt their criticism, exploit their networks and even influence other journalists.

Politicians find journalists useful as their contacts and newsroom savvy skills come in handy when lobbying for coverage and relaying the candidate’s message.

Deputy President William Ruto appointed Hussein Mohamed, a renowned news anchor who used to work for Citizen TV Kenya, to lead his campaign communications team.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga also named Dennis Onsarigo, a former investigative journalist at KTN and NTV, as the press secretary for his campaign secretariat.

Crossing over to the ‘dark side’

In Kenya, the trickle of journalists crossing over to what some call ‘the dark side’ of corporate public relations has become a flood. Financial factors have contributed – as media houses struggle to stay afloat and newsroom jobs continue to be cut across the board. Many are now taking up gigs in the great election races – in political messaging and strategy.

It’s not just Mohamed and Onsarigo who have made the move from the newsroom into political communications. At State House, Kanze Dena (a former news anchor at Citizen TV) is the spokesperson of the executive office of the president and the head of the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU). Her deputy Munira Mohammed, was previously a senior reporter at KTN.

We’ve created a lacuna in [the] media where any narrative goes –  which is good for the powerful and connected, but bad for everyone else.

At Ruto’s office, David Mugonyi (who worked as a political reporter before becoming a news editor at Nation Media Group) is the communication secretary, while Emmanuel Talam (former deputy managing editor at KTN) is the director of communication.

Within the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Dennis Onyango (another former journalist) is Raila’s spokesperson.

Undermining journalism?

Some of these moves have undermined the independence of the press, according to a former journalist working for a corporate communications firm that has political candidates as clients. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he says a weakened media industry means that in effect, corporate and political strategists like himself can set narratives in newsrooms with little pushback.

When I was working as a journalist, editors would ask questions and spend time on a story.

“The work we do is what I could describe as perception management for our various corporate clients,” says the former journalist who worked in a newsroom for over a decade and saw many of his colleagues leave for corporate communications and PR firms. Eventually he did the same, for better pay and better opportunities.

“What has changed since I left the newsroom in 2016 [is] how easy it is now for media houses to publish our press releases verbatim … to take up the narratives that we pitch pretty much wholesale,” he says. “When I was working as a journalist, editors would ask questions and spend time on a story.”

He says he has mixed feelings when he sees his “angles” published uncritically. On one hand he’s happy because his clients are happy, but one the other hand it saddens him that the standards of independent media are slipping, which could become a social problem. “We’ve created a lacuna in [the] media where any narrative goes –  which is good for the powerful and connected, but bad for everyone else. We corporate strategists – and especially those of us who are former journalists – are doing a disservice to the public.”

Mugumo Munene, another former journalist who is now in corporate communications, shares this view. Munene’s journalism career started two decades ago and by 2015, he was news editor of the Sunday Nation newspaper. At that time, the publication had an average readership of 4.4 million, and had consistently been the highest circulating newspaper in the country.

Weakened press industry

“Kenya has been known in the region for having a strong media that could withstand external pressures,” Munene tells The Africa Report. However, the business model for the media has weakened, leaving papers with less resistance to withstand corporate and political pressures.

One of the reasons that the quality of journalism has suffered over the past few years is the inability of newspapers to retain reporters who can become experts on their beats. Those who leave are often experienced journalists who can provide leadership, institutional memory and context to stories.

This leaves the newsroom open to engineered narratives and explicit ‘raiding’ of newsrooms by corporate and political messaging firms, says John-Allan Namu, a renowned investigative journalist who founded an independent outlet, Africa Uncensored, five years ago.

Namu says recent developments mirror the relationship between the government of Mwai Kibaki and civil society. “Kibaki was elected in 2002 after decades of activism and struggle for expansion of democratic space, but he appointed several prominent civil society activists into government and the result was a quiet decline of what was previously a very vibrant and active space.”

“I see the same happening in this administration, this time with the media as the ‘source’ of appointments. The overall effect, I fear, will be a further dimming of the democratic space that the media has historically held in this country,” Namu tells The Africa Report.

‘Pushed by circumstances’

Munene says he is struggling with the implications of his own path from the newsroom to the boardroom. “I started my career in journalism in 1999, believing my stories would be a force for good, and that I’d retire in journalism, but that’s not what ended up happening – the world changed. I’ve had to reinvent myself; I found an opportunity in corporate communications. I wouldn’t say it was fully by choice – I was pushed by circumstances.”

If the public begins to see the media as simply part of the machinery of political messaging [then] we’re not in a good place.

He says many of his colleagues have had to do the same. Sometimes even practising journalists have communications gigs as ‘side hustles’ because they are uncertain about their job security.

When the public sees journalists trooping to become part of government and political campaigns, public trust is heavily eroded, laments Munene. “If the public begins to see the media as simply part of the machinery of political messaging, or the work that journalists do in the newsroom as just a ‘stepping stone’ into political messaging or into a government appointment, [then] we’re not in a good place.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Kenya 2022: Voters fear election violence from resurgent Mungiki sect

With elections in Kenya just two months away, voters are worried about the resurgence of the violent Mungiki gang that unleashed ethnic violence across the country after the 2007 poll.

Kenya 2022: What to expect in this year’s most competitive elections

Political analysts have billed this year’s election as one of the most competitive in Kenya’s history, pitting deputy president William Ruto against the godfather of opposition politics Raila Odinga. There is already fear that the cut-throat competition for the top seat might fail to produce an outright winner hence forcing a run-off.

Kenya: Who’s who in Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja alliance?

Presidential contender and former prime minister Raila Odinga is counting on his skills in building a coalition to take on deputy president William Ruto in the August 2022 polls. One Kenya Alliance leaders Kalonzo Musyoka and Gideon Moi have joined Raila's Azimio la Umoja coalition, setting the stage for a face-off with deputy president William Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

Kenya 2022: Who’s who in William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance?

In early April, Deputy President William Ruto, a presidential contender, admitted eight new people to his Kenya Kwanza Alliance, bringing the total number of political parties to 12. However, unlike Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja - a registered coalition party - Kenya Kwanza is an alliance of parties. We outline those closest to Ruto in the alliance.

Kenya: Why Raila & Ruto remain quiet on land justice issues

For the first time in decades, Kenya’s leading presidential candidates are skirting around the explosive issue of land justice – instead of exploiting it as a way to mobilise voters to their campaigns.   Both candidates – for different reasons – have chosen to accept the status quo on legal regime on land rights

Kenya 2022: Who is Rigathi Gachagua, Ruto’s running mate?

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto has picked an ardent critic of President Uhuru Kenyatta to deputise him for the next five years should he win the August presidential election.

Kenya 2022: Raila promises the moon with Azimio manifesto

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga's Azimio coalition manifesto promises voters a range of freebies that many political analysts believe will be impossible to fully deliver if he wins the 9 August elections. Will Kenya's 22 million registered voters take the bait?

Can Kenya’s ‘Iron Lady’ Martha Karua push Raila over the top?

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga made Kenyan history this month when he chose as his running mate the first woman to ever join a major party ticket. But will she be able to push the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance leader to the top?

Kenya 2022: Your guide to the four presidential candidates

On 9 August, more than 22 million Kenyan voters will head to polling stations to choose who will be their leader for the next five years. Four men have presented themselves to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta. Who are they, and what are they offering?

Kenya 2022: Is Kenyatta losing his grip to Ruto in home turf of Kiambu County?

Kenya’s general election has been billed as a contest between political dynasties versus self-made politicians. Kiambu County, which is part of the larger Mt. Kenya region, has traditionally been a vote bank for President Uhuru Kenyatta. But with Deputy President William Ruto gaining in strength, will this election mark the end of Kenyatta influence on Kiambu politics?

Kenya 2022: Electoral battlegrounds to watch during polling day

Kenya's two leading presidential candidates are banking on voter turnout in their respective regional strongholds to win the coveted prize. Final opinion polls show former Prime Minister Raila Odinga pulling ahead of Deputy President William Ruto, but a run-off — the first in the nation's history — looms as a possibility. Which regions will determine the big race?

Kenya 2022 elections: Taxes, costlier loans top concerns for businesses ahead of polls

What does Kenya's business community want from the new government that is set to be elected on 9 August?

Kenya 2022: Whose mobilising strategy will win voters?

As Kenya's election day nears, the top presidential contenders William Ruto and Raila Odinga have shifted focus on getting out the vote to ensure a first round win. Who will have the perfect strategy to deliver the knock-out blow on 9 August?

Kenya 2022: Who will be crowned leader of voter-rich Nakuru county?

Kenya’s top presidential candidates William Ruto and Raila Odinga have been competing for attention in the voter-rich Rift Valley region.

Kenya: Why arrest of Venezuelans fuels fear of post-poll turmoil

What appeared as a normal arrest of  a foreigner at Kenya’s main airport has now turned into a major row between the electoral commission and the police, threatening to throw one of the country’s most competitive elections into disarray. Will the elections be deemed credible after all is done and dusted?

Kenya 2022: Could George Wajackoyah force a runoff between Ruto and Odinga?

Kenya's fringe presidential candidate George Wajackoyah is causing shockwaves in the political battlefield with some analysts fearing that his rising popularity might force a run-off for the first time in the country’s history. Is the Wajackoyah effect real or just a passing cloud?

Kenya 2022: Debt, corruption, and living costs top concerns as Kenyans go to polls

A mix of fear and hope hangs over Kenya as more than 22 million registered voters get the chance to elect the country’s next president on Tuesday.

As Kenya voted, the East Africa region watched in awe, desperation

The East African region has been watching Kenya's recent elections unfold. In Uganda, the election evoked recollections of last year's election, which were characterised by violence meted out on opposition politicians. In South Sudan, one of the countries where Kenyans in the diaspora voted, its citizens wondered when their country will hold its first election. Meanwhile, many Tanzanians praised the maturity of Kenya’s democracy.

Kenya elections 2022: Results awaited as candidates ask why so many people did not vote

As Kenyans wait for final results of the tight presidential race pitting deputy president William Ruto against former prime minister Raila Odinga, questions still linger why Kenyans defied the clarion call to turn out in large numbers and vote. Why did millions of Kenyans stay away?

Kenya 2022: International observers praise voting, warn on disinformation

As Kenyans wait for the final presidential results, international observers – in their preliminary reports – say the voting exercise was largely peaceful, even though there has been spread of disinformation that confused some voters.

Kenya 2022: Elections marred by low-voter turnout, technology failure, bribery

After the polls in one of Kenya’s most competitive elections ended on Tuesday evening, the focus now shifts to counting the presidential votes. Who between William Ruto and Raila Odinga will win the coveted prize?

Kenya 2022: Why Kenyans must wait before results are announced

22.1 million Kenyan voters are expected to head to their voting stations to choose who their leaders for the next five years will be. However, Kenyans will have to wait nearly a week to find out who will be the winner of this highly anticipated election due to the strict legal regime of the tallying process. We break down the process and voting technicalities.

Kenya 2022: Ruto declared winner of presidential election, Raila to contest in court

After nearly a week of tallying ballots, Kenya's Independent Electoral Bureau Commission (IEBC) has officially declared Deputy President William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance as the fifth president of the country.

Kenya: Why does the electoral commission struggle with elections each time?

Despite being allocated billions of shillings every five years, the electoral body continues to fail the test of delivering a free, fair and verifiable presidential election leaving many voters worried about the country’s political future. Is delivering an uncontested presidential election in Kenya an impossible task? And what really happened this time round?