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Opinion: Threats to Kenyan media perilous to constitutionalism, democracy

By George Nyabuga | Published Thu, August 10th 2017 at 18:07, Updated August 10th 2017 at 18:22 GMT +3
Photo:courtesy

When voting ended on Tuesday evening, most Kenyans expected to receive credible results.

However, it has turned out differently with one of the main political players disputing the results the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has been relaying from Tuesday night after polls closed in most parts of the country. 

The media have been expected to play their critical informative role, helping bring the results to millions of people keen to see the outcome of Kenya's highly contested elections.

 Yet amid this expectation are worries that the publication of the results by the media might birth chaos. So whether to publish or announce the results or not has become a subject of heated debate and threats.

 The notion that the publication of the results is 'dangerous' is based on the rather fallacious argument that announcing the results prior to the IEBC's validation and announcement might precipitate chaos and political crisis because of potential challenges to the electoral outcomes.

 Perhaps more worrying is the publication of presidential results based on constituency level results declared by the IEBC. Such a premium put on the election and specifically the presidential poll.

 The debates on whether to publish or not are healthy particularly because they help examine various issues relating to the transparency of the elections, what role the media ought to play and whether they have the independence or autonomy to monitor and announce results based on, for example, the constituency level outcomes.

 As part of playing an effective watchdog role, the public expects the media to report accurately on the goings-on including making timely announcement of the results.

 Given the intensity of interest in the elections and their outcomes, the ability to report accurately and responsibly is critical in Kenya's political and electoral dispensation.

 Thus the interest and capacity of the media to seek and publish 'truthful', credible and 'accurate' information in a highly competitive, contested and seemingly divisive election is part of its watchdog role, and the failure to actively and effectively fulfill that mandate will have long-term consequences on its place in society.

 As an institution interested in and expected to contribute to making the exercise clean, fair and transparent, and serving public interest, the media should be given the space to operate. However, the media should also be responsible enough to allow those in charge of elections to carry out their work without interference or undue influence.

 To a large extent (most) established mainstream media houses in Kenya have been responsible, and have given politicians and political parties, civil society, State and non-State actors the platform and channels through which to share information with Kenyans and others on various issues relating to the elections.

 The media are largely respectful of the law particularly because they recognise the need to stick to the law for the greater good of the Kenyan 'nation'. They also adhere to professional tenets that demand responsible reporting based on, for example, fairness, balance, and impartiality.

 However, it seems that the powers-that-be are currently not happy with the media and their demand that they should be allowed the space and independence to operate as part of advancing democracy, transparency and accountability.  

 In this context, it would seem the Government is particularly vexed that the media ought to publish election results. The Cabinet Secretary for Information Communication and Technology, Joe Mucheru threatened to shut down any media house that releases election results.

 "We have allowed people to tally their own results, even you the media but you are not IEBC," Mucheru said. "The constitution has given IEBC the mandate to announce the results, if you try to tally and announce or publish the results, we will shut the media house."

 For clarity's sake, the 2010 Constitution of Kenya promotes media freedom (Article 34 states that the 'freedom and independence of electronic, print and all other types of media is guaranteed') although of course parts of Article 33 says that freedom of expression does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, or advocacy of hatred.

 These constitutional provisions are cited to demonstrate the fact that although freedom of the media and expression are not absolute, there should be clear and/or sound grounds for any (severe or punitive) action to be taken against any media house.

Accordingly CS Mucheru's threats were hugely problematic and worrying in a country still concerned about opacity and rigging, and where some can (mis)use institutions to advance their own interests and agendas. This thus begs several questions.

 

For instance, why shouldn't the media publish results already announced at the constituency level by IEBC officials? How difficult is it for anybody to tally results already announced by the IEBC to make their own conclusions on who has won or lost?

 What is the Government worried about? Shouldn't the Government seek to advance openness and transparency as a way of proving that the elections are credible, fair and free (despite (recurring) contrary claims)?

 While there are concerns that fake news and irresponsible journalism can trigger chaos, most mainstream media are professional and have the interest of the country and nation at heart.

 Thus responsibility is something that journalists, editors and managers have promised at various fora to uphold not only as part of advancing peace but also democracy and constitutionalism.

 In this context, it is lack of information that threatens peace particularly when audiences feel the state is trying to restrict the publication of 'truthful' information, and particularly in the country where some key institutions are now suspected of being part of networks intent on rigging, interfering with or manipulating the poll.

 Given that knowledge is power, and that the media play a critical role of providing information on which that is based, the media ought to stand firm and publish credible and truthful information.

 That is part of media responsibility, and publishing timely and accurate information cannot be a threat to Kenya's democracy and peace.

 


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