Freedom of press is at risk even in Parliament

Journalists sit on the floor while covering a committee meeting in Parliament building on June 27, 2019. [File, Standard]
Threats by lawmakers recently to eject journalists from Parliament over alleged negative media coverage are not only unwelcome but a violation of the rights of the journalists to execute their duties as protected by the Constitution and other international instruments Kenya is a signatory to.

The threats are not new. The latest ones were triggered by media reports that a huge number of the lawmakers had travelled for a summit in the United States where they will draw millions shillings in allowances. 

The journalists had simply reported factually on a matter of public interest. Opposition leader Raila Odinga also commented on the issue. Previously, individual MPs have warned journalists over their reportage, including on the issue of proposed salary and allowances increase. At one point journalists were denied entry into the media centre prompting the Speaker to intervene.

The legislators’ action are not isolated. A number of people and institutions continue to violate journalistic privilege. Journalists enjoy constitutional protection which guarantees them access to information as provided by Article 35 of the Constitution and the access to information Act 2016 so that they fulfil their information-shaping function, and also ensure they protect their sources.

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Good governance

That is not to say journalists don’t have the duty to care and limitations when carrying out their work. Duty bearers should be at ease with the fact that journalists, while not special persons, enjoy privileges that come with their work. They enjoy those special protections because of the critical role they play, not only in the democratisation process but also in pushing for good governance and accountability in the management of public resources.

Cases of harassment of journalists, threats to journalists, censorship and related incidents are on the rise. Nyandarua-based journalists were recently trolled online. Brian Wasuna, a city-based journalist, was was also ridiculed and threatened online, students in Kisumu and Machakos injured a journalists and burnt down a vehicle, Willy Lusige was mishandled in Bungoma and Kakamega recently, journalists (pictured) were forced to sit on the floor in Parliament due to lack of seats. In addition a number counties, including Tana River, have denied journalists access to county assemblies.

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Such incidents cause a hostile environment, which affects journalists’ ability to provide quality information and reporting. This is detrimental to the realisation of the rights enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 paragraph 2 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Harassment of journalists violates a number of constitutional provisions including Articles 25 (freedom from torture and degrading treatment), 28 (freedom to be treated with dignity), 29 (freedom to security), 33 (freedom of expression), 34 (media freedoms), 35 (Access to information and 41 on labour rights.

At the international level, UNESCO Resolution 29 adopted in 1997 dubbed, “Condemnation of violence against journalists” urged the competent authorities of states to discharge their duty of preventing, investigating and punishing such crimes and remedying their consequences.

It also urges member states to refine their legislation to make it possible to prosecute and sentence those who instigate the assassination of persons exercising the right to freedom of expression.

UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006) condemns attacks against journalists in conflict situations, noting that journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians and should be protected as such.

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees individuals against arbitrary deprivation of the right to life (Article 4), establishes an absolute prohibition of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 5), guarantees the right to liberty and security of the person (Article 6), and freedom of expression (Article 9).

However, all these rights do not exonerate journalists from blame in some of the cases that lead to their harassment. Journalists the authors of their own misfortunes.

Sometimes they fail to adhere to professional ways of conducting themselves, including allowing quacks to mingle with them in the course of duty.

Accreditation cards

Journalists must do their work and conduct themselves in a way that earns them respect by not elevating themselves above the rest of the society. They should endear themselves to the society because of the important role they play.

They must carry themselves with decorum and seek to understand the environment and people they are dealing with. They must prepare in advance before going out to do their work including by getting proper information, press accreditation cards, arriving ahead of the speakers, doing a risk analysis of the event; whether they are wanted or expect hostilities, and above all, remain professional and non-partisan.

In the meantime, it should be noted that media workers and media owners should ensure they institute measures to ensure the safety of members of their staff as required by the laws relating to occupational health. The Complaints Commission at the Media Council of Kenya actively and expeditiously deals with any complaints lodged against journalists. We encourage anyone with any grievances against journalists to  use this mechanism.

Mr Bwire is the Head of Media Development and Strategy and a journalists trainer at the Media Council of Kenya

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