Kenya to Inaugurate New President, but Kenyan TV Is Mostly Shut Out
NAIROBI, Kenya — William Ruto will be inaugurated as Kenya’s fifth president on Tuesday in a ceremony attended by dozens of global leaders and diplomats — a peaceful handover of power following a bitter election season that underscored the place of democracy in East Africa’s largest economy.
But in a potentially ominous sign for freedom of the press, Mr. Ruto’s team limited the access of local television stationsto the inauguration,handing exclusive broadcast rights for the ceremony to a foreign television service. (Journalists from local newspapers and radio stations can cover the proceedings in person.)
During the campaign, Mr. Ruto had repeatedly accused Kenya’s media outlets of bias against him, and some analysts said that his decision to limit their access to the ceremony was a sign of his resentment.
Mutuma Mathiu, editor in chief of the Nation Media Group, which owns print and television news outlets, said in an interview that they have a “national duty” to cover the transfer of power, and defended his organization against charges of bias.
However, he said, “I don’t think we want to start a mud fight at a wedding and in the process soil the bride’s gown.”
Mr. Ruto triumphed in the Aug. 9 vote with a wafer-thin margin over his rival, Raila Odinga, who rejected the result and challenged it in the Supreme Court. But the court upheld Mr. Ruto’s victory in a unanimous decision last week.
Mr. Ruto, 55, who has been the country’s vice president for the last 10 years, was born to a religious family in a small village in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where he helped plant maize and went to school barefoot. He showed his initial interest in politics in the 1990s, becoming a stalwart ally of Kenya’s longtime ruler, Daniel arap Moi, winning a position in Parliament and later serving as a cabinet minister for agriculture and higher education.
His extraordinary rise almost came to an end a decade ago, when the International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity, accusing him of helping to orchestrate the violence that followed the 2007 elections. But the Court dropped the case against him in 2016, as the government he served in as vice president hindered evidence collection and witnesses recanted their statements.
Despite his dizzying wealth, with a business empire that includes luxury hotels, ranches and a huge poultry processing plant, Mr. Ruto pitched his campaign this year to Kenya’s “hustlers,” the multitude of young and ambitious strivers trying to make ends meet. During the campaign, Mr. Ruto clashed with his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had endorsed Mr. Ruto’s rival, Mr. Odinga, a former prime minister and opposition figure.
Mr. Kenyatta did not congratulate Mr. Ruto until Monday evening, when he finally welcomed him to the presidential office. Mr. Kenyatta is expected to be at the inauguration, but Mr. Odinga said in a tweet that he would not attend.
Mr. Ruto takes the helm of a nation facing economic, political and social challenges. Kenya’s economy is saddled with onerous debt, much of it borrowed to finance large infrastructure projects. Inflation is climbing, the currency continues to depreciate against the dollar and food and fuel prices are skyrocketing because of the war in Ukraine. Four back-to-back seasons of below-average rainfalls have left over four million Kenyans hungry and thirsty.
Kenya is in a region layered with strife — in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — and Mr. Ruto, observers say, could play a role in promoting peace and stability in the region.
But at home, he faces a divided nation after a nail-biter of an election.
“The incoming administration has a full inbox,” said Dr. Karuti Kanyinga, a scholar at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. “There’s a lot to worry about.”
One of those worries will be how his government will treat the media. Compared to many African nations, Kenya boasts a relatively open media space. But over the past decade, Mr. Ruto was part of an administration that took steps to muzzle the press by threatening journalists with arrest, shutting down broadcasters, starving media outlets of advertising revenue and warning journalists that they didn’t have full freedoms as protected by the Constitution.
Those worries were revived this weekend when Mr. Ruto’s team announced that it was giving exclusive broadcast rights to cover the inauguration not to local media outlets, but instead only to MultiChoice Kenya — an affiliate of the South African pay-TV company MultiChoice. Kenyan media will have to rely on the broadcast from the South African outlet.
Dennis Itumbi, Mr. Ruto’s spokesman, justified the move by saying Multichoice Kenya was not just any private contractor but was partly owned by Kenya’s national broadcaster. Editors on Monday evening said they were still negotiating the measure.
But Wanjohi Githae, a member of Mr. Ruto’s communications team, said in a text message that while local media could bring their broadcasting vans, there was no parking space for them “anywhere near the stadium.”
Media analysts said they hoped the move did not augur an era in which the press will be further stifled.
“The optics don’t look favorable given how this measure was rolled out,” said David Makali, a veteran journalist and communications strategist. “But I am ready to give the new government the benefit of doubt and hope this isn’t a deliberate move to suppress the press.”