The media scene in Kenya

By Njeri M. Ng'ang'a

Initially a tool for state control during the colonial era and following independence, the Kenyan media has gradually opened its doors to independent media outlets and effectively been liberated by modern technology.

Kenyan journalists at work
Kenyan journalists at work

As Kenya marked the 50th anniversary of her independence in 2013, development in many sectors was reviewed. The media review, for example, showed that Kenya has a diverse and dynamic media sector that is segmented into television, radio, print and new media, including the internet and mobile telephones. Together they serve the needs of various segments of Kenyan society. It is important to note, however, that it has been a long road for the media sector, closely tied to the country’s political and economic development and the interests of the ruling class.

According to a 2012 report published by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in conjunction with the African Media Initiative (AMI):
Kenya represents one of the most fascinating and dynamic media markets in the world today…Under the new democracy, the country’s news organisations have emerged from a climate of pervasive censorship, violence and state control. Leading newspapers are thriving economically and improving in quality. Broadcasting serves varied socioeconomic and cultural markets.

Experts now feel that the worst is over and accelerated growth can be expected - albeit with continued vigilance, if the recently enacted Kenya Information and Communication Act of 2013 is anything to go by.

Historical Development

The media in its current state is the product of the country’s colonial legacy, as well as more recent political, social, economic, cultural and technological forces, both local and global. The history of Kenyan media is closely tied to the political and economic interests of the colonial government and white settler communities. The colonial government viewed the press as a potential threat that required close supervision and control. Oriare and Mshindi (2008) note that the white-owned press was initially a vehicle for disseminating official information to the citizenry, especially the settlers. The colonial government adopted draconian laws such as the Newspapers Ordinance of 1906 to address the political realities of the time.

As early as the 1920s, a nationalist press emerged that opposed colonial policies such as racial segregation. The government feared a free and thriving nationalist press that acted as a mouthpiece for the independence movement. It enacted the Penal Code in 1930 and the Emergency Order in Council in 1939 and repealed the Newspaper Ordinance in 1950 to control allegedly seditious nationalist publications such as Sauti ya Mwafrika, Uhuru wa Mwafrika, African Leader and Inooro ria Agikuyu, among others. In 1952 the Mau Mau uprising and the declaration of a State of Emergency gave authorities an excuse to ban all nationalist publications and intensify propaganda against the movement.

The colonial government grew more conciliatory towards the media after lifting the Emergency ban as it became clear that Kenyan independence was inevitable. For the first time, the colonial administration not only allowed the publishing of newspapers affiliated to local political associations but also sponsored district newspapers such as the Kikuyu weekly Kihoto, Thome in Kamba and Ramogi in Dholuo. Unfortunately, they undid these gains by enacting the Books and Newspapers Act in 1960 to again restrict the growth of the nationalist press.

Radio transmission started in Kenya in 1927 with the advent of the East African Broadcasting Corporation (EABC), which relayed BBC news to the colonies. The first English Radio Broadcasting went on air in 1928 and served only whites and Asians. The first radio broadcasts for Africans went on air during the Second World War. It was not until 1953 that the African Broadcasting Service (ABS) was established, with programmes in Kiswahili, Luo, Kikuyu, Nandi, Luhya, Kipsigis, Kamba and Arabic. Broadcasts were strictly censored by the state and served to heighten propaganda against the Mau Mau and the independence movement. In 1954 a commission was set up to look into the future of broadcasting in Kenya. As a result of the recommendations, the Kenya Broadcasting Services (KBS) was established in 1959. In 1960 it became clear that independence was inevitable. Due to the colonial rulers’ anxiety over a service run by Kenya’s new leadership, in 1961 the private Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) was formed to succeed the government-controlled KBS. Television was introduced in 1962, first transmitting from a farmhouse in Limuru and covering a radius of just 15 miles.

Media in the post-independence Era

President Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues who took power upon independence in 1963 were keenly aware of the power of the media. Like their predecessors, they attempted to control the media for propaganda purposes. Media policy during this era was influenced by the urgent need for national unity and development, as well as political and ideological rivalries. The Kenyatta government was averse to independent or foreign-owned media that could promote discontent, preferring a co-opted media that would contribute to nation building and development. The KBC was therefore nationalized in 1964 and renamed the Voice Of Kenya (VOK), run by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The new government was intolerant towards the media and enacted the Official Secrets Act in 1968 to address a series of leaks that made the government vulnerable to political pressure. The rivalry and subsequent fall-out between Kenyatta and the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, then the vice-president, was exposed in the media and would set the tone for future government engagement with the media. The government’s banning of its own mouthpiece, the Pan African Magazine, due to fear of internal criticism was a clear indication of its intolerance towards the development of free media. In 1970, a new TV station opened in Mombasa to produce local dramas, music, cultural and other programmes. For much of the 1970s and 80s, however, the state retained a tight grip over the media. According to Oriare and Mshindi:
The intense political rivalry leading to the attempted military coup in 1982, economic recession that led to the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs, popular agitation for economic and political liberalization and globalization radically influenced development in Kenya. The eight-hour battle for control of the microphone at KBC during the 1982 coup attempt hardened the former President Daniel Moi’s position towards the mass media.

The Moi government restricted political freedom, clamping down on critical press. It harassed the media through sedition trials of the underground press. Between 1988 and 1990, about 20 publications were banned, including Beyond, Financial Review, Development Agenda and Nairobi Law Monthly. The government also targeted the foreign press, ordering local media to stop publishing news by foreign wire services and even deporting a British journalist in December 1988 following the queue-voting fiasco. In 1989 the Voice Of Kenya was renamed the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), designated as a parastatal and mouthpiece of the government. These measures were met with widespread opposition. According to Oriare and Mshindi,
Political agitations led by the clergy and lawyers and supported by the mainstream media led to the widening of the democratic space in Kenya. The repeal of Section 2A of the constitution not only ushered in plural politics but also precipitated the liberalization of the media and communication sector.

The gradual liberalization of the broadcasting sector began in late 1989, when the government licensed the privately-owned Kenya Television Network (KTN) to broadcast in Nairobi. In July 1990, Stellagraphics Ltd (STV) was also licensed. In 1995, Capital FM became the first private FM station. In 1996, KBC established Metro FM, an entertainment station operated on a commercial basis. However, the state retained some degree of control. The new FM stations focused on music and entertainment, while STV offered little news coverage so as not to rub the political elite the wrong way.

With the introduction of multiparty politics in 1991, the scope of political and press freedom widened, leading to a proliferation of independent newspapers and magazines such as Economic Review and Finance. This proliferation, along with economic demands and pressure from donors and civil society, forced the government to review its media laws. Since then, the government has continued to liberalize the airwaves by issuing broadcasting permits and licenses to many private entities, including foreign radio stations. Oriare and Mshindi note that the most dramatic development in the media sector took place between 2000 and 2007, a period which saw the proliferation of ethnic language FM stations across the country, the expansion of TV stations to all major towns and a boom in information and communication technology (ICT).


The Kenyan newspaper scene is relatively small and urban-based. Nevertheless, over 2.5-million people read newspapers daily. The largest publisher is the Nation Media Group, which publishes titles such as Daily Nation, Saturday Nation, Sunday Nation, Taifa Leo, Taifa Jumapili, The East African, Business Daily, Nairobi News and Sport On. The Standard Group publishes The Standard, Saturday Standard, Sunday Standard, The Nairobian and Game Yetu. Other publishers include Media Max Ltd (People Daily and Sunday People), Radio Africa Group (The Star) and the independent Weekly Citizen.

The magazine scene is diverse but does not enjoy as large a readership as newspapers. There are currently over 20 local and international titles, including Nairobi Law Monthly, True Love, Drum, Insyder, Market Intelligence, Msafiri, Oprah, New African, Time, Sports Illustrated, BBC Focus on Africa, Business in Africa and Africa Confidential.


The radio scene today is divided between public, commercial and community broadcasters. Public radio broadcasting is legally mandated to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which has some 19 public service stations, 17 of which broadcast in indigenous languages. KBC is the only broadcaster in the country with a nationwide network for both radio and television, including services to remote rural areas, which may not make economic sense for other commercial broadcasters.

Following the liberalization of the airwaves in the 1990s, a vibrant commercial radio scene emerged with the explosion of privately owned FM stations. The commercial radio market is dominated by Royal Media Services, which owns 12 stations. Radio Citizen is their flagship channel and has the widest coverage of all private stations. Other leading players include Radio Africa Group, Capital Group, Media Max Ltd and Nation Media Group. Commercial stations broadcast in Kiswahili, English and various vernacular languages. The programming formats of commercial radio stations focus on entertainment, with hourly news updates and occasional sports and business news. Almost all stations allow listeners can call in and contribute.

Community broadcasting has grown since the first community radio station was licensed in 2004. Today there are some 15 community stations, which typically serve those whose concerns rarely receive attention in the mainstream media. They are however faced with many challenges. As non-profit projects they depend on volunteers, who usually move on to paid positions at commercial stations. While this makes community radio an ideal training ground, it also means that the sector is subject to a regular turnover of staff and an attendant loss of skills.


Over 3.5 million homes in Kenya have televisions, meaning that TV reaches over 40% of the population on a daily basis. Kenya has three types of TV stations: network, satellite and cable. Network TV is the most developed segment in Kenya and comprises 10 channels, such as KTN, NTV, QTV, KBC Channel 1, Citizen TV, Family TV and K24. Kiss TV was recently rebranded and alongside East Africa TV now focusses on music and entertainment. Kenya’s satellite TV market is mainly associated with the South Africa-based service DStv, operated by MultiChoice. DStv offers various options for subscribers, ranging from local to international news, sports, music and movies. MultiChoice recently started offering DStv through mobile telephone platforms. The cable TV market is led by the Cable Television Network (CTN). It constitutes the smallest sector of the TV market and serves a small, affluent audience in Nairobi. Other investors such as Wananchi Group have invested in cable internet TV platforms such as Zuku TV, which is pushing to increase its market share.

The Kenyan TV sector is set to develop dramatically in the coming years as the country shifts from analogue to digital broadcasting. The Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK) has discontinued the assignment of broadcasting frequencies for analogue TV in order to prepare for the digital migration. The government has tried to fast-track this change, with the first phase meant to take place by the end of 2013, but this was postponed until 2014 following a court case filed by some media houses.

While there are over 15 community radio stations in the country, there are only two community TV stations: Star TV (based in Kisii) and Uunjiru TV (based in Machakos). Other recent developments in radio and TV include the proliferation of religious-based broadcasters, as well as the growth of international broadcasters such as Al Jazeera.

New Media

Official reports reveal a boom in cellphone and internet usage across Kenya. As of 2013, 30.5 million Kenyans used mobile phones – more than three quarters of the country’s population. Internet users are growing rapidly, with over 12.4 million subscriptions reported. These numbers will keep rising as mobile phones and internet continue to make inroads. Kenya is among the leading African countries in terms of its investment in new media. Individual as well as corporate involvement has enabled this sector to grow significantly. All the major media in Kenya have established internet services and disseminate news over the internet.

The use of social media tools - such as Facebook, Twitter WhatsApp and Tumblr - has increased significantly and changed the way the media is consumed in Kenya. A number of multinationals have set up camp in the country, most notably Google, which incorporated itself as Google Kenya and has become a major player.

The evolution and growth of the media in Kenya has been tumultuous, much the same as the country’s road to democracy, in which the media played a role. Today a growing number of young Kenyans receive radio broadcasts on mobile phones and the internet has become a powerful tool to consume and share various social, economic, cultural and political resources. From the early days of colonialism and state censorship, since the 1990s the Kenyan media industry has grown to include a wide variety of perspectives. Music in particular has benefitted from this liberalization and the subsequent growth of FM radio stations. The internet and mobile have given Kenyans far more options in terms of what information they consume and how they choose to do so. When the country goes digital, new frontiers will be opened. The future looks bright for the Kenyan media.



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