Journalism is under attack from all corners; stand up and defend it

As World Press Freedom Day is marked globally today, journalism’s fight for rediscovery takes the stage in a forceful manner. While the usual villains remain committed to their unhelpful pursuits to curtail free media, it is now becoming clear that the biggest weapon society has against these threats is journalism.

Increasing the amount of journalism is our best defence of independent journalism. And the journalist must be the first to stand up to protect the space from a more sophisticated enemy.

Two issues are of concern for the media, even as Kenya holds general elections on August 9. First, newsroom integrity and safety are coming under significant pressure as has always happened during elections.

The second one is that the sustenance of independent journalism is fairly challenged from an economic and regulatory front, and new ideas are needed to propel the sector forward and find a growth trajectory.

On the first issue, the number of powerful and influential people hard at work to force and influence editorial decisions to selfish ends is growing. Editors are daily called upon to fend off all sorts of strangers from the newsroom, but they persist. They apply threats, attacks, corruption and other dishonest methods in a quest to turn the media light off. Strong leadership, ethical commitment, innovative talent and constant vigilance is needed.

These questions gain even more important during election periods, as now. Renowned journalist Maria Ressa – the Nobel Peace laurate for 2021 – asks; “how can you have election integrity if you don’t have the integrity of facts?” Separating facts from campaign propaganda, especially that of the disinformation shade, is a hallowed duty for every Kenyan journalist. We owe the voter a duty to find them the information that will enable them vet those offering themselves for leadership, and that will protect the integrity of their vote.

To do this, our journalists’ welfare must be secured if they are to deliver, consistently. Their physical, mental and digital welfare is core to the performance of the journalism duty. This goes to the core of this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme – journalism under digital siege.

We must caution against blanket legal, legislative and policy decisions targeted at digital spaces. There may be a case for the authorities to check this space against issues like criminal activities, terrorism, incitement, and hate speech, but such should be handled carefully and not used as an excuse to clamp down.

The use of spyware and surveillance equipment by state actors and influential non-state actors to monitor the communication of journalists and their sources undermine journalism and is a direct threat to safety. We know that the Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli company has been acquired by security apparatus in many countries, including in Eastern Africa, and have been used to illegally access devices used by journalists.

The states should not take a carte blanche on these matters under security cover to inflict harm on individual rights. Effective superintendence of such state power by civilian agencies is key to make sure free speech is not punished.

The second issue, as listed above, is on sustainability, from an economic and a regulatory front. With advertising much reduced, there must be a hard conversation about the place of Big Tech in the media ecosystem, especially their distribution of content from media organisations and the sharing of revenue.

Quality journalism is expensive to produce, yet our growing economy and democracy needs a more robust journalism. Therefore, all who profit from the value created in the news production process must share its cost.

The financial pressure is creating other problems. Professionally, editors worry about the decreasing space for everyday journalism. How do editors navigate pressures of convergence and quality, when newsrooms are bleeding staff and resources?

We must stand up to digital dollar apartheid. Big tech – especially Facebook (Metta) and Google, has made concessions in Europe and Asia. The case and need is more compelling in Africa and they need to come to the table and contribute in strengthening our journalism and revenue bases.

Our regulatory framework must therefore be enriched with ideas and skills that can be a true referee to a legal and policy framework that ensures just sharing of the media value, and smart strategies for media development.

We have witnessed growing tension between journalists and media regulators, especially the Media Council of Kenya (MCK). The point is new modals of controlling journalists are emerging, and the threat is no longer the might of the central government as assumed before. Media issues are public issues, and we must discuss them openly.

While tensions between journalists and regulators are not inevitable, it is worrying when regulators usurp the mandate of journalist lobbies and when the regulators become whip dogs for the executive to curtail freedom.

To be sure, KEG acknowledges the work of MCK in supporting journalists. But we insist on open, consultative processes when it comes to matters touching on the media policy. We will reject any moves to drag the media into dark rooms.

Journalism solidarity through strong ecosystems including institutions, open discussion of media issues, peer review, safety, and sustainability are our hallmarks for progress. Editors cannot outsource the integrity of the profession to regulators or media owners.

We may not have answers to these questions, but we need to find solutions urgently. Key to it is that despite the challenges, doing more journalism moves us closer to solutions.