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

By Christine Mungai
Posted on Wednesday, 30 March 2022 15:18

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.”

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