Recalling World Press Freedom Day

The third of May marks the world press freedom day. This year, same as last year, here in Kenya, we marked it in style. The occasion, this year, was graced by the President, and last year by his predecessor. On May 3, journalists from across the globe pose to consider the challenges they, and their colleagues, endured the previous year. Kenya has, over the last two years, transformed these celebrations from mere blips on the calendar to celebrations recognized at the highest offices in the country.

 

Last year, the then President Mwai Kibaki pledged the commitment of the Kenya government to conform with Article 34 in the constitution. The Article guarantees freedom of the press. This year, once again, journalists and media scholars from the East African community, and beyond, converged in Nairobi to reflect on the profession.

 

The celebrations this year included the meeting, in Nairobi, of the executive committee of the World Association of Press Councils and a dinner gala to honor the best of Kenyan journalists. But Kenyan journalists’ satisfaction should only be complete if our predecessors, particularly Mr. Hilary Ngweno who was instrumental in Windhoek in 1991 in initiating the process through which UN General Assembly recognized this day, are satisfied with the efforts made so far.

 

Etched in the mind of journalists this year as they marked the day were the dangers their colleagues face every day when they report to work. The security of journalists is a matter of concern as many have lost their lives in the line of duty and many more threatened. Somali provides an example across the border where journalists have faced danger and have been killed. Further south, in South Africa, parliament, only earlier in the year, passed the security act which could be used to prosecute anybody who lifts a lid on state secrets.

 

But when the media fraternity gathers at the KICC to reflect on their trade this year they have to consider how Kenya has performed. While the major threat to journalists in Kenya may not be from the central government, however, sections of over enthusiastic security forces, organized goons, capitalist interests and even organized religion, still pose challenges to reporters.

 

 Too often, however, journalism looks outside to find the challenges it faces and seldom looks inside. The major event for the media over the last year was coverage of the 2013 elections, and particularly on social media, many have wondered whether the fourth estate played its watchdog role with the keenness required. Some even suggested that the IEBC and other state agencies got away so easily without searching lights being pointed at them to interrogate their performance.

 

Following the 2007 botched elections many fingers pointed at the media for its role in the heighted tension that resulted. This attention has been intense from institutions that may have been seeking to deflect attention from themselves and their roles. In both Kriegler and Waki reports the role of the media was questioned. Too often commentators seldom interrogated what “media” meant.  Sections of the media and particularly some that broadcast in vernacular deserved the attention they received.

 

But empirical analysis of the performance of mainstream media in 2007 is probably less harsh.  However, wholesale condemnation of the media drew fear through the entire industry, and while conclusive empirical analysis is yet to be conducted, anecdotally, it may just be that in 2013 the media succumbed to the spiral of silence, to play it safe.

 

The late German scholar, Elizabeth Noelle-Neuman, did hypothesize many years ago in her concept of spiral of silence that the public, the media included, tends to sense what the dominant ideas in society are and suppress their own opinions in order not to appear to depart from the normative and thus avoid being isolated. The dominant gospel in Kenya, over the last five or so years, has been on peace and the media played along rather well. It is not often that you find the media being praised by those who it should be watching over as has been the case in Kenya.

 

But now the media fraternity must turn its attention to the challenges that lie ahead. We have a new government with a litany of promises to implement and a diminished, only modest, opposition; will the media step in to keep a scorecard on government performance? On the legislative front have been laws important to the industry which needed to be considered urgently.  The first is the establishment of the body envisaged in Article 34, which should have been in place, by August this year. But equally important are the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Bills that have been on the cooking banner for rather too long. Journalists must not look the other side as interested parties take the lead in fashioning these bills.

 

 

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Role of Media

What really is the role of the press in an emerging democracy like ours? We could limit ourselves to the normative roles that every freshman student of the media touts out: to educate, to entertain and to inform. But obviously the role of the media in a democracy is much more extensive than that.

At this transition stage between the old and the new – when the old constitution has not completely been shelved, and the new constitution is still taking shape both in our lives as well as in our minds there is no gainsaying the educational and informational role of the media. This task requires the media to educate the public on the truths of the constitution and how that constitution affects them, but also to build the capacity of the leaders, particularly the legislators, to enable them have foresight in their effort to formulate laws, and the effort of other sectors of the nation in their efforts to implement the laws.

Even more critical is the watchdog role – to ensure that the executive does not focus too much attention on self-interest and in the process forget to work for the people. At the same time, the media must contribute in marking the legislature to ensure that the house of the people’s representatives remains focused on the people’s agenda. The watchdog role requires the media to point out if the debate in the house is increasingly frivolous, if the house is faced with constant lack of quorum, if the focus of the house is still on the core business of the nation, and if the discussions in the house are substantial.

Obviously, it is no easy task for the media to play these roles in a democracy governed by the rule of law. For too often, in the effort to provide information which in many cases touch on the lives and activities of individuals media must navigate the terrain gingerly to ensure that in the process it does not step on peoples toes.

This puts a huge responsibility on the media to balance between providing information and being sufficiently careful so that in the process it does not open itself to accusations of defamation. There is the age-old question as to whether media can be too brusque as to invade the privacy of others in the process of providing the public with information.

This points to how to treat issues that fall within the private and public domains. How private are public officials? How public are private citizens whose activities affect the public? How private are private citizens whose exploit of the media have made them public enabling them to benefit from this exploitation?

It is generally accepted that public officials serve the public and therefore their activities must be scrutinized more critically due to public interest, while other citizens whose activities impact the public domain in one way or the other may win a right to less public scrutiny, because public interest in their activities need to be tempered with greater circumspection.
In the process of implementing the new constitution, as debates take place in hallowed corridors of power and law, in stadia, in market places and in bars what ought to be the educational, informational and watchdog role of the media in synthesizing some of these debates and bringing them to public domain as a basis for further investigation or simply for caution? If the media have access to information that they have not been able to sufficiently verify, yet in their judgment is of sufficient magnitude to greatly injure the interest of the public how should they balance caution against public interest?
Should the noble objective of objectivity, balance and fairness weigh heavily on the media against the public interest? It was noticeable, in the recent debates in parliament regarding appointments that relate to constitutional offices that too often the media have leaned on the side of caution.

The recent stand off in American politics is instructive. On the one hand are the republican lawmakers with their eternal commitment to tax cuts vowing that they either have their way or it is the highway. The media pretty much took off the gloves and told the republican leadership to think again. Were they being objective or were they siding with one side of the debate? The argument is that because of their network of correspondents, call ins and other channels of communication the media have their fingers on the pulse of the nation more than many a politician. As such they may be in a better position to assess public interest.

And where the media assess the public interest should they be bold enough to take bold position on issues? For instance, should the media maintain objectivity, balance and fairness when in possession of information that individuals with less sterling public record are poised to be hoisted on the nation? Does it not serve the public interest more for media to take positions at such moments and while letting every side have its say – in the process remaining objective, balanced and fair – put forth their position and declare where the public interest should lie.

The media in this country have been accused for playing certain not altogether wholesome roles in our more recent history. Many sectors in the nation are being reformed and beginning to do business differently. Media too must come out in the public interest and start doing business differently.