The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has denied county governments permits to set up radio stations, stirring a fresh storm between Nairobi and the devolved units.
The telecoms sector regulator has rejected 20 county government applications seeking FM radio broadcast bands, arguing that broadcasting is not a devolved function.
“The authority has not issued any county government with broadcast frequencies for either FM or TV broadcasting. The Constitution envisaged that the provision of public broadcasting services is the role of national government since this function is not devolved,” said CA director-general Francis Wangusi in an interview with the Business Daily.
Mr Wangusi directed county governments to use the State-controlled Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), for their communication needs.
“KBC is the media house currently charged with the responsibility of providing public broadcasting services in Kenya,” he said.
Governors on Tuesday reacted sharply to the CA’s rebuff, promising to challenge the decision in court.
At the centre of their argument is the fact that the law allows counties to set up and use communication platforms such as radio and television to promote public participation in matters such as planning, budget and law making.
British human rights campaign group Article 19 roundly condemned the CA’s order terming it as a breach of the freedom of establishment provided in the Constitution, and which stipulates that licensing procedures must be independent of political interests.
Henry Maina, director of ARTICLE 19 in charge of eastern Africa, said the CA’s decision “has no basis in law” and termed as fallacious the declaration that running a radio station is a national function.
Nairobi, Kiambu, Vihiga, Kwale, Meru, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Mandera, Busia, Machakos, Murang’a, Kakamega, and Bomet are among the county governments that had applied to the CA for radio permits and have set up infrastructure in readiness for the business.
Nairobi allocated Sh50 million in the budget for the year ended June 2015 to set up City Hall FM, and had lined up a similar amount this fiscal year to complete the project.
Vihiga governor Moses Akaranga has spent millions of shillings to set up Vihiga FM, having launched a bi-weekly publication dubbed Vihiga Star in February 2014.
Mandera Governor Ali Roba last week said the county had completed building a radio station, adding that the channel would keep residents informed.
On Tuesday, the Council of Governors (CoG) accused the national government of acting on “misplaced fears” and using the CA to weaken devolved units by denying them ownership of communication channels.
“They don’t seem to understand the law. The CA is ill advised and undermining the Constitution. This is part of a wider scheme to undermine county governments,” said Meru governor Peter Munya, who chairs the CoG.
“We’ll challenge this in court. The law provides for county governments to set up media channels to communicate their agenda to the public,” Mr Munya said in a telephone interview from Sweden where he is on an official visit.
Mr Munya questioned why individuals and institutions such as churches, colleges and universities have been allocated radio and TV frequencies yet the CA “can’t trust governments elected by Kenyans with such a role.”
The County Governments Act (2012) expressly allows Kenya’s devolved units to set up media platforms in order to stimulate citizen participation in the development of policies, plans, and delivery of services in the county.
“A county government shall establish mechanisms to facilitate public communication and access to information in the form of media with the widest public outreach in the county,” reads section 95(1) of the statute.
It goes on to list six media platforms: television stations; information communication technology centres; websites; community radio stations; public meetings; and traditional media.
The CA’s decision to deny governors radio licences comes as a big blow to the county bosses who saw the platforms as a mouthpiece to trumpet their achievements and connect with wananchi.
Successive regimes have traditionally used public broadcaster KBC as a platform to propagate the ruling party’s manifesto, accomplishments, and air presidential functions.
USE LOSS-MAKING KBC
ICT secretary Joe Mucheru proposed a model where county governments use the loss-making KBC as a signal distributor even as he acknowledged that the government was yet to figure out how best to handle devolved units’ quest to venture into broadcasting.
“Even the national government doesn’t have a spectrum. You can’t have every county have a frequency. The cost of setting up and running radio stations is also very high,” Mr Mucheru said.
“KBC has a distribution licence, which county governments could use rather than each setting up own infrastructure.”
A county executive committee in charge of ICT in one of the vast counties in the northern frontier said the CA’s decision was a major setback for those in remote areas that are not covered by commercial radio stations.
“Our county is huge in terms of land size and a radio station would be ideal to reach out to wananchi. We barely have radio stations here,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Kenya has 62 free- to- air TV channels while the number of FM stations stood at 139 as at March 2016, according to official data from the regulator.