In the heart of Kenya’s vibrant media landscape, a quiet revolution is underway as artificial intelligence (AI) technologies progressively transform the traditional newsroom. From content creation and distribution to audience engagement, AI-powered tools are reshaping how journalists operate, bringing unprecedented efficiency and innovation to the forefront.
However, there is a pressing concern – the risk of media capture as algorithms and automation become integral to news production. Experts in the field fear that this technological revolution could be a double-edged sword of innovation and a new toolkit for media censorship in the country
Press freedom and standards of journalism are under heavy attack around the world – from media capture, where a deliberate attempt is made by powerful actors, including governments, to co-opt or control the media, silence journalists, and even shut down media outlets. This was tragically illustrated in April 2015 when the Weekly Mirror’s editor and publisher, John Kituyi, suffered a fatal blow to his head in Eldoret town and publication closed down forever. The attack was believed to be in response to the newspaper’s critical reporting. Media capture also occurs through government regulations, gag orders, civil suits with exorbitant damages, and through advertising which targets the sustainability of independent media. However, AI-powered tools present a new and more insidious challenge. These technologies have the potential to turn media organisations into unwitting accomplices in their own capture.
“Soft” media control is not new in Kenya, however, its intensity and visibility increased significantly from 2013 when Jubilee government assumed power. Soft censorship through advertising and digital tools continues to be the biggest threat to media freedom, as it weakens both the financial stability and credibility of media organisations. A 2021 report by ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa found that both state and corporate entities use financially-induced self-censorship as a tactic-where they offer lucrative advertising and threaten to withdraw it if the media reports critically about them. These practices Th damage the foundations of the media industry and hinders the sustainability of independent outlets while discouraging collaboration.
Henry Maina, a media expert and former media Complaints Commissioner, says the risk of losing advertising revenue can influence editorial judgement, leading to decisions driven by factors other than news value. He contends that this not only compromises professionalism but also creates an environment where both public bodies, such as the Government Advertising Agency (GAA), and private entities, like SCANAD, a marketing services agency, hold immense sway.
“When advertising departments become far bigger in decision-making, while editors take responsibility, this dynamic effectively turns media organisations into mere conduits for partisan reporting,” Maina says.
The establishment of GAA in 2015 and the launch of MyGov, a government-owned publication, as a weekly insert in the four main newspapers in the country, increased the threat to the media’s survival. MyGov consolidated procurement and payment functions of all advertisements. While these actions were framed as cost-cutting measures, promoters of press freedom saw them as deliberate attempts to either silence media critics or influence reporting. This move, combined with the GAA’s influence, strengthened the capacity for soft media control and journalists’ self-censorship. Government spending control is significant, as an estimated 30% of newspaper revenues come from government advertising.
The Kenya Kwanza government has made the situation even more difficult, as leaders have made no secret of their contempt for the media, often accusing it of being “biased” or part of powerful “cartels” that need to be “crushed”. One of its first moves after assuming office in September 2022 was to slash 75% of the annual media advertising budget. All these add a new layer to media control, where risks extend beyond overt external pressures to subtle, less discernible influences of AI-driven tools such as algorithms and automation.
The use of algorithms to distribute online news content has raised concerns about transparency, objectivity and fairness in newsrooms. Algorithms generate news based on predicting individual preferences or based on an individual’s past consumed information, which deviate from the journalistic principle of prioritising the public interest. In order to increase web traffic and attract big advertisers, some media outlets with an online presence are adopting clickbait-style language in their online content. Experts say that clickbait may hurt online news coverage and circulation, leading readers or viewers to fall into ‘filter bubbles’ that reinforce their preconceived notions. They argue that not only does this raise questions about the impact on journalistic standards, but it also threatens public interest journalism.
Demas Kiprono, the Deputy Executive Director of the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya) says that AI-powered tools can help journalists analyse large amounts of data and uncover hidden insights for in-depth investigative reporting. However, certain journalistic standards must be adhered to when using AI-driven tools to generate news articles and reporting. He points out the need to address issues such as algorithms with built-in biases or inaccuracies, deep fakes, and sensationalism influencing news curation rather than fairness and accuracy, which are cardinal ethical standards in journalism.
“There are concerns regarding the automated creation of news articles and reports that may need to meet specific standards, such as objectivity and authenticity. Media houses need to understand AI tools, their capabilities, limitations, and risks,” says Kiprono
A study published in May 2023 by International Media Support titled ‘AI, Journalism, and Public Interest Media in Africa’ revealed the widespread use of AI in newsrooms across Africa. The study found that AI is being adopted in African newsrooms, with Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) being the most common types. Newsrooms are using ML for fact-checking, verification, transcription, translation, data visualisation, sentiment analysis, and opinion mining.
The survey which involved eight Kenyan media organisations highlighted how differently AI tools are being adopted across newsrooms. Kenya and South Africa lead in AI use, particularly in well-resourced media organisations that invest in premium systems and custom-built tools. Smaller media organisations with limited resources have either not adopted AI or primarily use open-source tools.
From interviews with some editors, it was revealed that other AI tools being used in Kenyan newsrooms include Grammarly and Quillbot to detect errors and simplify or rephrase sentences. AI-powered Chatbots are being used to interact with audiences and gather feedback. Bing is used for keyword generation and search engine optimisation (SEO) while ChatGPT is being used to analyse large amounts of text data, identify and verify key facts and figures, as well as help research and tease out news angles or headlines.
However, some editors are reluctant to use these tools directly, while others are uncomfortable with AI-driven tools in newsrooms. The use of AI technologies in journalism raises concerns about an increase in low-quality and polarising content, which could further erode public trust in journalism.
Michael Ollinga, Current Affairs and Special Reports Editor at Tuko.com, one of the leading online news platforms in Kenya, emphasises the need for caution when directly publishing AI-generated content. He explains that AI tools can act as catalysts, stimulating creative thinking and offering different approaches or angles to a story. His newsroom has monitoring tools that flag any fully AI-generated content against established codes. They monitor and counter content manipulation on social media platforms and search engines. They also regularly adjust their content strategies and encourage innovative content creation to overcome the limitations of AI tools such as hallucinations.
Ollinga says that transparency is very important and they constantly remind journalists to interview experts from various fields to provide real and fresh perspectives for their stories. He says this is one of the steps taken to protect media freedom and journalistic standards from AI-driven tools in Kenya.
“To maintain editorial standards, we use monitoring tools that efficiently flag any fully AI-generated content that may violate our established guidelines as well as insist on our journalists to interview experts in that field of their story topic,” adds Ollinga.
Professor George Ogola, a former lecturer and academic director of the MBA programme at Strathmore University Business School, believes that AI tools will continue to bring about significant benefits despite human anxieties of losing control to automation. These benefits include increasing people’s span of control, reducing human error, and providing unprecedented efficiency.
“The technology still faces challenges arising from human self-interest, weaknesses, incapacity, and fear of losing control. These challenges do not serve the public interest. There is a need for collaboration between digital platforms and news media to improve technology and strong self-regulation to ensure unbiased public service,” says Prof Ogola.
Press freedom ensures that journalists can report independently without fear of interference from any entity, including government institutions, powerful individuals, or tech companies that power AI tools. Media experts’ express concerns regarding these technological businesses’ profit-driven business model, concentrated power in only a few hands, lack of transparency, and potential control by a repressive state.
Professor George Nyabuga of the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications notes that most media consumers find it difficult to distinguish between AI-generated news articles and those written by humans.
“This digital media and information illiteracy means that people can easily be deceived by increased misinformation and disinformation. This will ultimately affect people’s trust in media and journalism, and therefore press freedom,” he observes.
Press freedom advocates have warned about the potential for media control through these technologies, stemming from the government’s secret online monitoring, sometimes under the disguise of fighting disinformation, misinformation, hate speech, and other national security-related concerns.
During the 2022 general election, the Media Council of Kenya reported a surge in misinformation and disinformation campaigns across digital platforms, from media outlets to influential social media users. Additionally, foreign entities were also mentioned for using AI tools to spread online misinformation and disinformation in Kenya. Anonymous bloggers, allegedly associated with an Israeli ‘Team Jorge’ hacking group, allegedly shared fake documents online to discredit the credibility of the August 2022 presidential election results.
The Guardian newspaper revealed that Team Jorge had previously been linked to disinformation efforts in the 2019 Senegal and the 2015 Nigerian presidential elections by accessing and sharing content from targeted social media accounts without users’ knowledge or consent.
A source within Kenya’s national security intelligence, commenting on condition of anonymity, says that the government is deploying cutting-edge AI-driven surveillance technologies to restrict social media and snoop on critical voices including the media. These technologies allow for real-time social media monitoring to detect any signs of opposition or critical media coverage that is seen as negative towards the current government. It involves using extensive “datasets, keywords, and facial recognition” technology to monitor government critics, including websites, bloggers, journalists, and media content critical of leaders and the style of governance.
According to the source, AI systems are being used to remove political views that are against the government, discredit critical online news reporting, impose restrictions on major websites and social media, and manipulate or counter online public criticism with government achievement narratives. The source however refused to mention any particular AI tools being used for these purposes, for fear of being linked to this article. The government had not replied to our request for a comment on these claims at the time of publication.
In August 2020, a website that questioned former President Kenyatta’s administration on the amount of money lost to corruption was taken down after the platform’s owner, Charles Gichuki, was arrested and later released without charge. Authorities have also forced regular online users and journalists to delete content from their social media accounts and websites. On May 27, 2022, X (formerly Twitter) suspended 22 accounts, including those of the #NjaaRevolution campaign, protesting rising prices of foodstuff and cost of living in Kenya. The vague reasons, “suspicious behaviour” and “breaking X Rules,” raised concerns about potential state interference and the risks associated with AI tools in surveillance and opinion manipulation.
The government’s use of state-level censorship, filtering, and website takedown, as well as content removal requests, on platforms like Google and Facebook, as well as X, according to the media experts, reflects the government’s strategy. On 20th November 2023, Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) platform reported that Telegram had been officially blocked during Kenya Certificate Secondary Education national examinations period, demonstrating the government’s ability to control media platforms and flow of information when it deems it necessary.
The government’s leverage of AI tools, such as Blockchain, and surveillance technologies, highlights its influence over the online presence that may include targeting the media. The state’s legislative measures under the guise of national security and morality, and collaboration with big tech companies suggest a concerted effort to capture and manipulate the media landscape. The alignment of political and commercial interests by tech companies in shaping online narratives raises concerns about the erosion of media freedom.
News consumers have also expressed concerns about the potential inherent bias in algorithms that could be exploited for political or commercial interests. Bias in algorithms can arise from various sources, including the data used to train them, the design of the algorithms, or the goals of the individuals or organisations developing them. This they say creates an environment where information is controlled and manipulated for specific agendas including political or commercial interests, leading to the suppression of diverse voices and perspectives.
Others argue that media outlets are facing a dual challenge: the risk of being replaced by AI and their own political biases. Professor Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, emphasises the need for capacity building in the development of algorithms. In 2018, Prof Ndemo led an AI and Blockchain taskforce that recommended using these technologies to combat corruption and enhance transparency in the country. The report highlighted the dependability of their ‘immutable’ records. He states that there are efforts to create legislation and regulatory frameworks that specifically address the challenge of governing AI.
“Media itself is under threat of extinction from AI and is more biased now than ever before. We need capacity building in the development of algorithms. That way some of them can be discredited,” says Prof Ndemo.
AI and blockchain technologies can help the media industry create more targeted content for specific audiences. However, without clear regulatory frameworks, these technologies could be abused. Maina stresses the importance of ensuring that government agencies using these technologies for national security purposes are subject to judicial sanction and civilian oversight. It is crucial to keep these technologies in check to prevent any misuse.
“Without a clear regulatory framework, such technologies may also be utilised to spread disinformation, incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence. It can also be used in surveillance against investigative journalists, newsrooms, and civil society actors that seek to protect and promote the realisation of press freedom, freedom of expression, assembly and association,” he adds.
This article was first published by the Sunday Standard here