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Kenyans Have Limited Access to Media Ahead of Presidential Elections - 2002-12-21

As Kenya's December 27 elections draw near, the government is coming under increasing criticism for its tight hold over the media. Critics are charging that most Kenyans have access to nothing but ruling party propaganda.

The majority of Kenyan voters can only tune in to one radio and television station, the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

According to an organization that is monitoring the country's upcoming election, the Democratic Development Group, KBC's coverage has been less than even-handed.

The British ambassador to Kenya, Edward Clay, is a member of the Democratic Development Group, which is made up of 25 diplomatic missions in Kenya. Mr. Clay described how the state broadcasting corporation covered the election on a recent day.

"KBC radio, in their four major bulletins, gave four times as much coverage to the governing party as to the opposition. And that all of that coverage for the governing party was favorable, whereas two thirds of the coverage of the opposition was unfavorable," he said.

Critics say this kind of coverage gives the ruling KANU party's presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, a distinct advantage.

Not surprisingly, KBC's reporting has angered opposition campaigners.

For Michael Wamalwa, who is the vice presidential candidate of the opposition National Rainbow Coalition, there can be no doubt whose side the state broadcasting corporation is on.

"KBC is openly and shamelessly helping KANU in this campaign," he said. "They should not use taxpayers' money to further one of the candidates. We feel we should get our due share of airtime through a network that we all contribute to maintain."

KBC's coverage has also been criticized by the Media Institute, an independent organization that monitors Kenya's media. One of the institute's officials, David Makali, said one effect of the coverage is that Kenyans are not as well informed as they could be about the candidates.

"I think it all amounts to propaganda which can actually be very deceptive. And is disinformation, in a sense, because people are not being given a fair chance to evaluate each of the candidates and the agenda that they have for the country," he said. "It's important in a democracy that people be exposed to as much information as possible to make informed choices."

KBC denies that it is biased. Its officials say they would like to provide broader coverage but are prevented from doing so because of technical difficulties and a shortage of staff. But Mr. Makali says other factors are involved, the most important being that KBC's management is directly appointed by the president and is thus easily manipulated.

Kenya's government also controls the issuance of licenses to electronic media companies. Independent stations have found it difficult to win these licenses.

Kenya's biggest selling paper, The Daily Nation, recently set up a radio and television station. But it has not been granted a license to broadcast more than 60 kilometers outside Nairobi.

Wangethi Mwangi, the editorial director of the Nation Media Group, owns The Daily Nation, as well as the new radio and television stations. He believes the government's refusal to grant the stations a license that covers more of the country is politically motivated.

"They fear if we are allowed to broadcast nationally, we will of course subvert the opinions of people against the government of the day, which is not true. There is no basis for that," he said.

Besides KBC, Kenya has one other main television broadcaster, Kenya Television Network. It recently won licenses to expand its broadcasts to the major cities.

Mr. Makali of the Media Institute attributes its success to the fact that the Kenya Television Network is owned by people who are close to President Daniel arap Moi. These include the president's son, Gideon Moi, as well as an aide to the president.

Ahead of the December 27 elections, the two leading presidential contenders Mr. Kenyatta of KANU and Mwai Kibaki, candidate of the Rainbow Coalition, have both promised to reform KBC if they win office. However, many observers doubt these promises will be fulfilled.

Supporters of media freedom are also critical of Kenya's courts, which have imposed heavy libel damages on some newspapers and journalists. Media watchdogs say the fines, sometimes more than $200,000, are designed to drive newspapers out of business.