The violence that attended Kenya's 2007 elections shocked the nation's media as well as the larger society. According to African experts interviewed in this fifth episode of Peacebuilders, Kenyan media has become both more responsible as a result and more oriented toward reaching ethnic-group audiences rather than national ones. Whether this will lead to an increase or decrease in the importance of ethnicity for Kenyan politics remains to be seen.
In 2002 Kenya's postcolonial period of one-party government ended. "That's when we started enjoying freedom of expression," says Sharon Odhiambo, communications and outreach officer at the African Technology Policy Studies Network and a former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding fellow. Before then, broadcasting had been mainly in English and the national language of Swahili, which is the most common second language among Kenyans.
Broadcasting in "local" or "vernacular" languages - languages that overlap with ethnicity and historically are the first or home languages for most Kenyans - took off in the mid-1990s. As George Gathigi, a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nairobi, notes, after liberalization in 2002 private broadcast news in vernacular languages became politically influential. Not coincidentally, these broadcasts were in the three languages that corresponded to the three most politically powerful (though not necessarily largest) Kenyan ethnic groups.
The presidential election violence in 2007 was closely connected to ethnic rivalries: the results were disputed, and Kenyans who belonged to ethnic groups aligned with one presidential candidate clashed with Kenyans whose ethnicity was more aligned with the other candidate. One result of this ethnicization of political competition at the national level was a devolution of governance in 2013 to 47 counties, with a corresponding expansion of local-language radio stations.
Today, says Odhiambo, "we have a lot of vernacular stations. So you find that each tribe at least has its own radio that they can listen to news. You find the people mostly in the rural areas, most of them, they'll prefer the radio because the social media - we can't assume that everybody in the rural areas has a smartphone. So you find that most of these people will tend to lean towards the radio."
"People who have used social media as their main communication platform, they have done terribly during elections," Gathigi adds. "The flip side is the radio broadcasters from local languages, they have done extremely well, even when they have no resources, even when they don't have the political clout. There is a connection that radio is always able to make, and that has to do with the kind of conversations that local radio has and the connection with the people."
In one sense, this could be seen as boosting the political relevance of ethnic alignments, since political news and opinion will be received through non-national media channels in vernacular languages. At the same time, Odhiambo emphasizes that Kenyan media post-2007 have institutionalized constraints on inflammatory reporting, while Gathigi argues that the potential legal ramifications for ethnic incitement - exemplified by the International Criminal Court's prosecution of senior Kenyan figures following the 2007 violence - could also have a restraining effect.
Both experts also see a growing role for social media in the country's political life, mainly among young Kenyans, as smartphones become more common.
* Peacebuilders features nine episodes from East Africa. The four remaining episodes - on South Sudan, immigration and refugees, the African state, and "African solutions to African problems" - will be broadcast weekly on Tuesday mornings. The interviewers are Aaron Stanley, a program assistant with the Carnegie Corporation's International Peace and Security program, and Scott Malcomson, an author, journalist, and former government official and NGO executive. Malcomson was a Carnegie Corporation media fellow (2015–18) and is currently a fellow in international security at the New America Foundation and director of special projects at Strategic Insight Group.