This year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is historic because it also marks 30 years since the landmark UNESCO conference in Windhoek, Namibia in 1991 when on May 3 that year, participants signed the historic Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a free, independent and pluralistic Press.
The event has this year returned to its cradle in Windhoek, with a gathering of journalists, other key media players and other important agencies, to mark the day, both physically and virtually, due to Covid-19.
Under the theme: “Information as a public good”, the event reminds us of the importance of making information accessible to all people as a basis for every form of communication and decision making in all societies.
The theme is also important for journalists who must communicate to consumers based on information about all aspects of human life.
Kenyan media stakeholders are also participating in marking the day, virtually. At the national level, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) has organised a physical and virtual event in Nairobi on May 3.
There has also been a regional virtual forum led by the Eastern Africa Editors Society, in which many Kenyan media stakeholders, including the Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA), have been participants over the last few days.
Violation of rights
Since 2018, KCA has led in mobilizing and encouraging journalists in the regions and counties, through its networks, to mark the WPFD. Despite the continuation of the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, KCA has mobilized journalists’ networks to mark the event in various locations, among them, in Meru, Coast Region, Nakuru, Lodwar, Eldoret, Bungoma, Siaya, Kisii, Kisumu and Migori.
Some of the activities planned by the journalists in the regions include: media round table discussions, demos with banners, posters, T-shirts and other Information Education Communication (IEC) materials and delivery of petitions to the local authorities with a call for respect to the role of journalists and press freedom.
The regional leaders will also address the press on cases of press freedom violations, hold radio talk shows and interviews with local leaders on the role of the media in democracy, governance and the need for more access to information, freedom of speech and assembly as provided for in the laws and the constitution.
This event is being marked against a background of an increasingly worrying press freedom situation in Kenya.
Reports by KCA and other media sector players indicate that more than 60 journalists have been subjected to various forms of violations between March 2020 and April 2021. The violations have included intimidation, attacks and in some cases deaths of journalists.
On April 7, 2021, Betty Barasa, a senior video editor and television producer with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) was shot dead at her home in Ololua, Ngong, near Nairobi. A month earlier in March, a former journalist and communications officer with the National Land Commission (NLC), Jenipher Wambua, was kidnapped and found dead in Ngong forest.
The two cases and others earlier are yet to be conclusively investigated to hold the perpetrators to account. The attacks, some of them, during recent by elections in various parts of the country, and on journalists covering Covid-19 related issues, have sent a chill down the spines of journalists, in the process, undermining press freedom.
Funding from donors
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a most devastating effect on journalists and the media sector over the last one year. More than 100 journalists have been affected directly by the pandemic. Many journalists have succumbed to Covid-19 related complications and the health burden on families has been overwhelming. Colleagues have been forced to organize numerous fund raising efforts to either assist with hospital bills or funeral expenses.
During the period, a number of journalists has been forced into quarantine or self-isolation, which has brought discrimination and trauma. Like many other Kenyans, journalists have faced financial difficulties and social/family upheavals.
Over the last one year, more than 500 journalists have lost their jobs, while hundreds others have had their salaries reduced, making life unbearable and dehumanizing.
Correspondents have been hard hit. KCA and groups of journalists in various regions have had to hold fundraising events or mobilize resources to support the most affected, to get food, pay medical bills, pay rent or even to keep afloat with airtime and data bundles to do stories.
KCA, with funding support from various partners has offered grants to more than 100 correspondents for the past one year to do stories on Covid-19 and related health issues, both to survive on the job and meet basic life needs.
The media sector has been reeling from the effects of Covid-19 and revenues were reduced significantly. Some media enterprises are faced with the prospect of closing down entirely.
The challenges have called for innovative thinking to make the media sustainable. There have been conversations through various forums by media stakeholders on leveraging technology and setting up a fund for media sustainability. These conversations will continue as no concrete strategies have been developed.
As we mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, we must also reflect on other challenges facing the media sector. The media ownership regime in Kenya, dominated by a few politically connected and mostly profit bothered, is a threat to press freedom and the independence of the media.
Advertising revenue, tightly controlled by the corporate sector, other influential business actors and the Government Advertising Agency (GAA), is increasingly being used to muzzle the independence of the media and journalists. Investigative journalism and critical reporting are on the decline due to the threat posed by those that control advertising revenue.
Equally worrying is the policy and regulatory regime. The Media Council of Kenya, set up as an independent entity based on the provisions of the constitution and the Media Act 2013, is increasingly drifting into state capture, with all indications of its actions geared towards pleasing elements in the executive, ostensibly because of government funding.
Ongoing boardroom wars have reduced MCK into a lame duck entity with little internal coordination and oversight, a development that threatens not only the council’s independence but legitimacy and support from the media industry, which has felt antagonized by some of its actions.
Recent actions by the Communications authority, which include the suspension of shows by Homeboyz radio and Mt.Kenya TV and levying hefty fines over what the authority views as inappropriate content have indicated a desire for strong arm regulatory tactics.
Add to this, increasing forays by the Kenya Film Classification Board into the media content regulation arena, with a big moral hammer, then there is course to worry.
The principle of media self-regulation is being actively undermined by what appears to be a joint and concerted overzealous application of law, and policies by the regulatory bodies, some of which are clearly opaque and questionable.
The Complaints Commission at the Media Council envisaged as the first port of call by those aggrieved by journalists and the media houses, and designed as a mediation institution to mitigate against expensive, antagonistic legal duels, are almost toothless.
At the global level, the situation is not rosy at all. Over 15,000 journalists have lost jobs across Africa and a number of journalists have succumbed to Covid-19. Many journalists are in jail while a number have been killed.
Reports by UNESCO indicate that between 2010 and 2020, the UN body condemned the killing of over 950 journalists and notes that the killings around the world remain unpunished.
According to UNESCO, there were at least 10 cases of journalists killed and 125 others attacked while covering protests in 65 countries globally between 2015 and June 2020.
Women journalists have faced many risks and dangers because of both their profession and their gender. Apart from physical safety concerns such as assault, sexual assault, rape, and murder, they also face vicious online abuse and harassment more than their male colleagues.
As we reflect on this important day, we must work hard and collectively to promote an environment which facilitates the work of journalists for the good of society and the promotion of information as a public good.
This is an Op-ed article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
The writer is the chairman of the Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA), and also the Secretary, Congress of African Journalists (CAJ).
RoGGKenya is a consortium of five organisations namely:
- DW Akademie
- Kenya Correspondents’ Association
- Transparency International – Kenya
- Article 19 East Africa
- CRECO – Constitution and Reform Education Consortium