The attackers who came for John Kituyi one night in April weren’t interested in robbery. According to police reports, the unidentified assailants approached Kituyi as he was leaving his office at the headquarters of The Mirror Weekly, a newspaper in the Kenyan city of Eldoret, and bludgeoned him just steps from his home. While the attackers took Kituyi’s cell phone, they left his cash and wristwatch untouched, with Kituyi lying in a pool of blood as their motorbike sped away.
Many journalists report that instances of harassment and physical violence are also on the rise. A 2013 survey by the Kenya Media Programme polled nearly 300 journalists from across the country and found that more than 90 percent had been threatened because of their reporting, most often for stories related to politics, corruption and the divisive conflicts over land.
In the case of Kituyi, colleagues believe he was killed because of an April report that speculated on the case of Deputy President William Ruto, who faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court related to violence following Kenya’s disputed presidential election of 2007.
Kituyi’s murder was one of an estimated 19 cases of threats or attacks against the press recorded between January and May of this year, according to research by the CPJ and the Media Council of Kenya. The researchers found that all but three of the cases involved police or other government officials, with prosecutions rare. Many journalists told researchers that the climate of fear had created a culture of self-censorship in the Kenyan press.
Additional pressure comes from the media’s precarious financial state. According to Ohito, Kenyan media houses generate 40 to 50 percent of their revenue from government advertising, making it difficult for journalists to report on politically sensitive issues. Recent government cost-cutting measures, meanwhile, are expected to dramatically reduce the amount of money spent on traditional media, a budgetary shortfall that could have repercussions throughout the industry.
Deep-pocketed corporate sponsors, meanwhile, are also able to use their financial leverage to discourage critical reporting. “It’s almost impossible to write a negative story about the leading telecoms here, or the leading banks here,” said Ohito, of the Editors Guild. Media ownership is also increasingly being concentrated in fewer hands — the country’s two biggest media houses own a combined 13 daily and weekly newspapers, three radio stations and three TV stations — with politicians and their families frequently controlling sizeable stakes.
While media groups remain hopeful that President Obama will have press freedom on the agenda this week, they also recognize the need to consolidate the gains they’ve made in recent years through Kenyan institutions. “There are some strong civil society organizations, there is [an independent] judiciary,” said Rhodes, “but it’s tenuous.”
Ultimately, he said, “the strongest defense the press has in Kenya is a discerning and intelligent public,” as with the case of investigative news show Jicho Pevu, whose robust popular support has allowed it to continue broadcasting despite frequent government threats.
Journalists, too, have shown their willingness to stand up for each other: Two of Kituyi’s colleagues in Eldoret are currently investigating his murder. Thus far, however, the killers remain at large.