Ideas & Debate

Time to pull down barriers to Press freedom in Kenya

press

Journalists cover the offloading of Covid-19 vaccines at JKIA in Nairobi on March 2, 2021. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

Summary

  • Press freedom is a fundamental human right that largely actualises freedom of expression and access to information provisions in our Constitution and is critical in enhancing public participation in governance issues and enabling citizen involvement in the democratisation process.

As is the case with the rest of the world, media remains a strong player in shaping national development processes in Kenya while at the same time holding the position of the most trusted institution.

Press freedom is a fundamental human right that largely actualises freedom of expression and access to information provisions in our Constitution and is critical in enhancing public participation in governance issues and enabling citizen involvement in the democratisation process.

With the opening up of the civic space in the past three decades, including liberation of the airwaves in the country and the inclusion of media freedom and access to information in the Constitution, journalists and other media practitioners have shown professionalism and maturity in news dissemination amid demands for accountability and civic education for Kenyans.

Indeed, current data indicate that many Kenyans are demanding more information on several public interest issues, and among the leading sources of credible information is the media.

Ravages of Covid

Amid the ravages of Covid-19 and reports from global press freedom watchdogs showing that press freedom in Kenya is currently under threat and declining, media in Kenya continues to influence public agenda in several ways.

Through professionally executed and bold journalism, the media has demanded accountability from the duty bearers and exposed grand corruption and gross human rights violations in the country.

Journalists affiliated to national media houses or working as freelancers, as independent online content producers or for community media have braved the legal hurdles, physical threats, intimidation from judicial officers, advertisers, media owners and fellow journalists to bring us news that we can identify with.

Challenges that still undermine free and independent media and constrain the civic space in Kenya include application of laws and administrative codes that are out of sync with the Constitution and general international human rights instruments that Kenya is a signatory to; editorial influencing by corporates/owners and advertisers; censorship; job insecurity; physical threats to media practitioners; corruption; and poor working conditions. These have been observed to to have chilling effects on media practice.

There is also the failure to appreciate the changing consumer tastes and preferences by the media and disunity amongst media professional associations, which has made the sector more vulnerable to attacks and eroded their bargaining power thus poor remuneration and dearth of professional ethics and credibility.

The laws that have been identified as constraining the civic space and need to be reviewed include Kenya Broadcasting Corporation Act, Books and Newspapers Act, Public Security Act, Official Secrets Act, Films and Stage Plays Act, Defamation Act, Preservation of Public Security Act, Public Order Act and Chief's Authority Act, National Police Service Commission Act, National Intelligent Service Act, Kenya Defence Forces Act, Copy Right Act, Public Benefits Organizations Act and the Penal Code.

Others are those that create public agencies to regulate the industry such the Media Council of Kenya, the Communications Authority of Kenya, the Competitions Authority of Kenya, the Copyright Society of Kenya, and the Kenya Films Board.

Even though the Constitution has given every citizen the right to freedom of expression — which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research — it has also limited this freedom. It does not include propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, or advocacy of hatred, which may constitute ethnic incitement, vilification of others or incitement to cause harm.

Journalists must also familiarise themselves with Art 10 of the Constitution that requires upholding of the national values and principles of governance, including national unity and public participation.

The issue of corruption in media must be addressed and tackled urgently. Corruption has led to loss of credibility amongst journalists- and trust from people.

Journalists must continue to engage with duty bearers, seek information using the access to information law, do joint ventures and focus more on constructive journalism through problem solving stories, localise our content to speak to our audiences and invest more in research and investigative journalists.

The prevailing hard economic times and dwindling revenues from advertisement call for new way of doing things. Content must become king, and it can only do so if it resonates with the audience. More than ever before, media must invest in research and quality journalism.

Kenyans should also appreciate the environment in which media is operating and offer support through sharing information, documents, and constructive criticisms. We must allow journalists to do their work, while those charged with advising the government on policy matters should work on a media policy for the country.

Access to information

The culture of holding everything in government as secret must come to an end for citizens to realise the benefits of the access to information law.

The media sector must also ask themselves: which way self-regulation? Is the current co-regulation of the media effective? While passing the Media Council Act 2013, stakeholders called it a moderate law that require improvement. Is the sector working jointly to bring about the desired changes? How should the issue of improving the working conditions and welfare of journalists be handled — for it’s a really a big issue.

Bwire is Head of Media Development and Strategy at Media Council of Kenya.