Observers often depict Sweden’s media landscape as a democratic corporatist. “Ideologically, however, the Swedish media system could be described as a mixture between classical liberal ideas of the press as an independent ‘fourth estate’, and social responsibility ideas concerning the necessity for cooperative relationships between the political system and the media system in order to maintain diversity and public service,” Jesper Strömbäck and Lars Nord, Swedish political communication scholars, wrote in their article on the nexus between media and politics in Sweden.

On the other hand, Kenya’s media landscape is characterized as East Africa’s most vibrant but sometimes profoundly compromised. Kenya’s colonial history, the reintroduction of political pluralism, the liberalization of the press in the 1990s, and the advent of internet technologies have helped shape the country’s media industry.

The pursuit of media professionalism

Kenya’s media has also been transitioning towards more professionalism, especially since the 2007/2013(Amended) Media Act. Similarly, there has been a push for more professional autonomy granted constitutional protections that guarantee press freedom.

Both Sweden and Kenya’s media landscapes play host to private and commercial media enterprises and, in varying degrees, report high levels of trust from their audiences. Moreover, digital technologies have impacted media operations in both of these countries. In turn, these technologies have inevitably compelled media organizations to innovate their economic models, which have traditionally relied on advertising revenue.

Against this overview, I draw on three notable aspects of the Swedish media landscape that could strengthen Kenya’s evolving media. These include; a reasonably strong public service media, a free press and a high degree of professionalism.

Although there has been tremendous progress, Kenya’s media still struggles with undue political interference, as evidenced by sporadic harassment from the government, coupled with economic constraints amplified by the effects of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. Kenya’s journalism practice needs strengthening, having come under scrutiny in recent years for its perceived lack of professionalism and ethical failures.

According to a 2017 article by Kenya based media critic Patrick Gathara, the country’s news reporting is best known for regurgitating statements from politicians and fails to engage in investigative journalism that establishes the truth.

Taking the lessons

Consequently, what can Kenya’s media landscape learn from Sweden’s Public Service Media (PSM)?

The principal core value that underlies Sweden’s PSM is the concept of universalism. Media and communication scholars Hilde Van den Bulck and Hallvard Moe deconstruct what this entails in an article interrogating this concept within the realm of PSM.

There is the idea of ‘universal appeal’ where PSM is expected to produce programming that speaks to the diverse interests of different socio-demographics within the citizenry to ensure a well-informed citizenry, which results in a well-functioning democracy.

In turn, it fosters a national identity. Another aspect of universalism is an intentional focus on minority interests, including high culture and educational focus, the scholars explain. Indeed, universalism is especially important, granted that Sweden’s PSM is publicly funded through an individual public service fee collected through the tax system.

As a result, there is a greater expectation for public accountability, balance and impartiality, and independence from political and economic pressures. Reflecting on the value of universalism, it is no wonder that even amid ideological, technological and commercial pressures, Sweden’s PSM remains among the most trusted and popular news sources, according to the 2020 Reuter’s Digital News Report.

The same cannot be said of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), a state-funded news media corporation perceived as Kenya’s public service broadcaster. Reuter’s Digital News Report ranked KBC among the less trusted media enterprises far below commercial broadcasters in the country. KBC has often been criticized for its continued amplification of voices mainly sympathetic to the government of the day.

This approach is of much concern because KBC has a more nationwide reach, particularly in rural areas, compared to other broadcasters.

Strength in diversity 

Nonetheless, KBC has made tremendous progress in promoting diversity of voices and programming, especially its radio division, broadcasting in a variety of languages reflective of different ethnicities. Its core values in some ways mirror those of Sweden’s PSM. The main difference is how and the extent to which these values are implemented.

Since taxpayers fund KBC, it must reflect programming that lives up in practice to its stated core values. It is no secret that Kenya’s media has been complicit in fanning the flames of ethnic violence, especially during elections. Thus, as the national broadcaster, KBC should set itself apart by being more intentional about representing all voices impartially.

Another aspect of Sweden’s media landscape that could be useful to its Kenyan counterpart is a push for a more unrestrained press. Free media is essential to the proper functioning and preservation of democracy. The press ought to perform its normative roles of informing the citizenry and holding public officials accountable without interference from governmental or commercial influences.

While the former can impose restrictive regulation, the latter prioritizes profit at the expense of accurate and objective information. Going by the 2020 World Press Index Freedom rankings, Sweden ranks fourth, compared to Kenya’s 103rd position, out of a possible 180 countries compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

According to the freedom index report, Sweden has historically enjoyed a strong tradition of independent journalism. As early as 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to include a Freedom of Information Act in its Constitution, comprising the freedoms of expression and information. Sweden’s media is self-regulated and has an independent press council. And even though the state plays a significant role in media policymaking, it does so with a consciousness of protecting press freedoms.

The same can generally be said of the Kenyan media landscape, at least in theory. As earlier stated, Kenya’s media practice is constitutionally protected, including freedoms of expression and information, unless that speech leads to incitement and violence. However, the latter has provided a loophole for harassment, granted that it is not adequately clear what or who determines what hate speech is.

Kenya’s media is independently regulated by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), an organization tasked with registering and accrediting journalists, media establishments and adjudicating complaints.

Therefore, protecting media freedom is paramount since the media in Kenya, like other emerging African democracies, is regarded as a nation-building force crucial to sustaining the democratization process.

The dynamism of Kenya’s media

There is no doubt that there is a growing degree of professionalism evident in Kenya’s media landscape. Kenya’s media is continuously redefining and reinventing itself against the country’s complex political and economic structures. For instance, all the major news organizations are now signatories to the media code of conduct and journalism schools offering standardized journalism training courses have increased.

That said, ideological differences still abound between long-serving journalists and a so-called “newer breed” of journalists, making it a good breeding ground for editorial rigidity and limited opportunity for re-invention. Politicians still wield significant influence on media operations.

In addition, the media’s core business of news is often undermined by various business interests, corruption (brown envelope syndrome) and self-censorship. Compare this with Sweden’s media landscape where journalists, for instance, have more autonomy, better pay structures, a good gender balance, hence an environment that breeds more professionalism.

In conclusion, is there anything that Kenyan media can learn from Sweden’s media? The simple answer is yes. The more complex answer is that these are two very different countries, one with well-established public institutions and an emerging, often fragile democracy.

Besides, Sweden’s media landscape also faces many challenges, such as dealing with misinformation, fake news, and whether the public service media adequately reflects Sweden’s growing diversity. There is also the rise of alternative right-wing news sites that promote an anti-immigrant agenda, challenging the traditional media portrayal of a diverse Sweden, to mention a few.

About the Author

Author ProfileJoy Kibarabara
Joy is a doctoral candidate at Stockholm University’s department of media studies. Her research focuses on the emerging field of constructive journalism, particularly its implication on African journalism practice. Her research takes a praxis-based approach with the aim of building bridges between journalism practice and academia. Professionally, Joy has worked as a journalist and lecturer in media studies and presented her research at various academic conferences.

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