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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