Stakeholders should address existential threats to media freedom

Kenya celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday. Its theme is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other human rights”. People and societies can protect all other rights by seeking, receiving, and imparting information. You can’t claim a right you don’t know about. If you can’t express yourself, you can’t convey your dilemma and seek solutions.

Even though Kenya ranks well in the region, there have been concerns about press freedom and freedom of expression. Government censorship and interference worry media practitioners. Another existential threat is the declining viability of the traditional/legacy journalism model centered on Radio, TV and selling Print Newspapers. These models depend on government advertising. News consumption has been disrupted by digital technology, and big tech has gained power. Now that anyone can publish, the public is exposed to more misinformation and disinformation. It is common for news not to be curated by editors, which was a safeguard in legacy media.

Regarding safety, there have been complaints of profiling and physical targeting of journalists by political players leading to injuries. Reports and video clips showing journalists being attacked and injured by police during the Azimio La Umoja protests have many journalists concerned, despite assurances that an investigation would be conducted.

The death of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif by police under unclear circumstances on 23 October 2022 is of concern. Kenya’s image as a sanctuary has suffered. He fled Pakistan for security reasons only to be killed by police. Nobody has been charged six months later. In another example of government overreach, the Communications Authority condemned and warned six media outlets for covering the protests. The Constitution explicitly prohibits state interference in media content. Not to be outshone, Azimio called for a boycott of the Star Newspaper for perceived bias in reporting. The boycott call was rescinded, promising grievances would be filed with the independent Media Complaints Commission (MCC). So far, no complaint has been filed. Since the owner of a major media outlet declared support for a political party last election, there have been debates on political media bias. Others view it as an affront to public trust since radio and television use public spectrums. However, others view it as an exercise in freedom of expression, especially since political support was declared. Similar bias allegations were made about other media outlets during last year’s elections.

Shakahola Farm was closed to the media last week as a security operation zone. So far, 110 bodies of suspected religious cult members have been discovered. All stakeholders want to know what happened, so it doesn’t happen again. It is without question that the crime scene requires the preservation of evidence, the digging of suspected gravesites and other operations. It does not diminish Kenya’s right to know or the media’s right to access.

Journalists are bound by a code of conduct and ethics that prevent them from jeopardising our security. Journalists and police should cooperate to secure Kenyans’ right to know and not jeopardise evidence gathering. In 2015, the High Court struck down attempts to limit, control, and criminalise media coverage of terrorism. A raft of statutory amendments were made during the height of the 2014 terrorist attacks. For example, news about attacks had to be approved by the police IG. It was confirmed by the court that any restriction on media freedom must be written, necessary, and proportionate, as well as pursue a legitimate purpose.

The least restrictive method must be used to protect a legitimate objective, such as preserving evidence. Collaboration between police and media is the least restrictive solution.

First published in The Standard on 05th May 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]