Author: Noelina Nabwire, November 1 2013      October 31, 2013 was a sad day for the media in Kenya. The Kenyan Parliament passed draconian media bills that stifle media freedom and independence and violate the Kenyan Constitution. The passing of the Kenya Information and Communication Bill 2013 and the Media Council Bill 2013 sounded a death knell on media freedom in Kenya. The only hope for the media fraternity and Kenyans now is that the President declines to sign the bills into law.

What is the role of the free press in strengthening democracy, good governance, and human development?  Liberal theorists note that the existence of an unfettered and independent press is essential in the process of democratization as it contributes towards the right of freedom of expression, thought and conscience; enhances responsiveness and accountability of governments to all citizens; and provides a pluralist platform of expression for diverse groups and interests. 

The guarantee of freedom of expression and information is recognized as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. In particular, Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

Kenya’s constitution under Article 34 is clear on media freedoms and guarantees:

  1. Freedom and independence of electronic, print and all other types of media is guaranteed.
  2. The State shall not: (a) exercise control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium; or (b) penalise any person for any opinion or view or the content of any broadcast, publication or dissemination.
  3. Broadcasting and other electronic media have freedom of establishment, subject only to licensing procedures that: (a) are necessary to regulate the airwaves and other forms of signal distribution; and (b) are independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests.
  4. All State-owned media shall: (a) be free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communications; (b) be impartial; and (c) afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.
  5. Parliament shall enact legislation that provides for the establishment of a body, which shall: (a) be independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests; (b) reflect the interests of all sections of the society; and (c) set media standards and regulate compliance with those standards.


It has been posited that the relationship between a free media and the democratization process is reciprocal: in the first stage, the initial transition from autocracy opens up the state control of the media to private ownership, diffuses access, and reduces official censorship and government control of information. Consequently, the citizenry has greater access to a wider variety of cultural products and ideas through access to multiple radio and TV channels, as well as the diffusion of new technologies such as the Internet and mobile telephones. In the second stage, democratic consolidation is strengthened where journalists in independent newspapers, radio and television stations facilitate greater transparency and accountability in governance, by serving in their watch-dog roles to deter corruption and malfeasance, as well as providing a civic forum for multiple voices in public debate, and highlighting problems to inform the policy agenda.

By passing the two bills, government has practically gagged the media from, inter alia performing their role in the democratization process. Kenya’s parliament has dealt a great blow to a free and vibrant media that Kenyans fought so hard to have.

Some of the repressive sections include: formation of an all powerful Communications and Multi-media Appeals tribunal tasked with: handling regulatory issues; receiving complaints and adjudicating over any contravention within the Media Act or the new Communications Authority of Kenya (e.g. breaches of journalists’ code of conduct and media coverage); imposing fines of up to Kshs 20 million for media organizations and one million for individual journalists; and powers to recommend suspension and removal of a journalist.

Noelina Nabwire is a Communications, Media and Knowledge Management Specialist, currently based in Kenya, and works in countries in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Image credit:

1. For a bibliographic guide to the literature on the media and development, see Clement E. Asante. Press Freedom and Development: A Research Guide and Selected Bibliography. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. For a discussion of how alternative theories have evolved in the normative debate see H. Shah. 1996. ‘Modernization, marginalization and emancipation: Toward a normative model of journalism and national development.’ Communication Theory. 6(2); Denis McQuail. 2001. Political Communication Theory. London:  Sage.

2. Amartya Sen. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books

3. Goran Hyden, Michael Leslie and Folu F. Ogundimu. Eds. 2002. Media and Democracy in Africa. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.