How independent is Media in Kenya?
By Victor Bwire
As we mark the World Press Freedom Day, it will be interesting to take stock of how far the ideals and principles of the Windhoek declaration which the day is premised on, especially the independence of the media have been respected in Kenya. The day was set aside by the UN General Assembly to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom annually; to take stock of how the press performs its responsibilities; to defend the media from attacks on its independence; and to honour journalists across the world.
The Windhoek Declaration envisaged a press liberated from government, political or economic control. Equally, the Declaration stood against monopolies in the media industry, and defended the widest possible distribution of media.
That Kenya has one of the best working environments for media in the region is not in doubt. That media freedom in anchored and protected in the most progressive Bills of Rights globally is not in contention. Articles 33, 34 and 35, some of which have been actualized through the Media Council Act 2013, KICA 2013 and Freedom of Information Act 2016 set the stage for the actualization of the Windhoek Declaration. With nearly 139 radio stations, 60 TV stations on air and over 60 publications on the streets, it always shock people how Kenyan ranks very poorly in global media freedom indexes. However these two laws are still problematic and need a review, given that on a number of issues, they seem to cause confusion and expose journalists to more harm; especially the fines, board selection and complaints handling. In addition, while sections of the law including misuse of communication equipment and relating to undermining the authority of persons in big offices have been declared unconstitutional, a number of laws in the statutes need to be updated; these include the Books and Newspaper Act, Defamation Act, Official Secrets Act, among others.
Media independence in Kenya is still very problematic; largely through control of advertising revenue and ownership and or political control. Through such formations as the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) and My Gov, backed up by a directive that Government sponsored advertisements should be minimized in private media, media players have seen this as interfering with media independence and influencing editorial content. Its common knowledge that some known corporate advertisers are using their financial muscle to impose self-censorship on the media. A number of media houses and individual journalists have borne the brunt of corporates, who withdrew advertisements because of the editorial content. Several cases by corporates in Courts and related huge fines have been used to curtail independent media. This has compromised independence and forced some journalists out their jobs. In addition, because of media ownership related issues, a number of independent minded journalists have been sacrificed in Kenya. The cases of Chaacha Mwita, Denis Galava, among others are still fresh.
It has also been documented that media owners influence what materials to publish so as to increase sales without care of the moral of the story and its impact to the mass is quite demoralizing. Cases where media owners, are also politicians, preachers and a presenters on their own stations are classic examples of how not to promote independent media. A number of journalists have complained of cases where media owners have to clear editorial content, program guests and related professional issues. A number of journalists have been harassed and targeted for attacks simply because of the media enterprises they work for and their ownership known political leanings. This creates two problems; leads to self-censorship and by extension compromise on media independence, and affects the free distribution of content.
In addition to the external interferences that pose a challenge to independent media, lack of work ethics, professionalism or integrity by some journalists with the notion that reporters and editors solicit for bribes to write great stories has greatly affect journalists’ credibility. There are in house editorial policies that derail proper channeling of information. The issue of poor pay and working conditions has also undermined independence of the media as journalists, easily get compromised and pursue stories guided by individual personal interests rather than public interest. That sources take advantage to interfere with media independence is known.
Media independence and content distribution has also been affected in Kenya because of media harassment. A number of journalists have been targeted for attacks, physically assaulted by security officers and political thugs, which is against the Windhoek Declaration. The Isaiah Gwengi case in Siaya, John Kituyi in Eldoret, Francis Nyaruri –Kisii, among others is yet to be resolved. Many media houses and individual journalists are being strolled and harassed online for content they produce- this undermines media independence.
Harassment of the media by County Government agents and political thugs presents the biggest challenge to media independence and content distribution in Kenya,
The current debates and confusion in the manner and contents of the laws relating to media in the country is a direct response to a quest by stakeholders for a media system that will strengthen media freedom, enhance independence, build the capacity of the media to set agenda representing public interest and establish a regulatory framework that cultivates professionalism accountability. Media sector has not been streamlined in the major development policies of the country thus missing out on a sector very crucial to national development.
The Writer works at the Media Council of Kenya as the Programmes Manager and a Journalists safety Trainer. firstname.lastname@example.org