Celebrating International Press Freedom Day

When journalists protested against harassment by state agencies. [Boniface Kendo, Standard]

We mark this year's International Press Freedom Day with mixed feelings. Feelings of jubilation and questions as to whether the media in Kenya has been accorded its deserved place.

The role of the media as the agency through which change and development can be attained cannot be overemphasized. The media is the watchdog that draws the attention of the people to occurrences that may be either celebrated or castigated by the readership.

 Globally, the media’s contribution to human civilization more than any other form or agency of social and political sensitization, mobilization and education cannot be understated. It remains not only the whistleblower but also the mouthpiece of a society where and if systems go awry. It is rightfully acknowledged as the fourth arm of government. It checks on the other three arms and values and celebrates them when they respect the values of democratic societies such as respect for the rule of law and accountability in the exercise of their respective public duties.

In playing this role, the Press often attracts criticism from the government and other agencies whose failings and malpractices it brings into focus.  In other words, the gains we have attained in press freedom are often under constant threat from senseless government-sponsored agencies who feel insecure amid incisive press criticism of its excesses.

The harassment in Kenya of the Standard Group not so long ago speaks volumes about the perilous conditions in which the media operates in Kenya. Journalists have often been injured in the hands of police brutality and their cameras smashed into pieces to silence the voice of the media and the people.

The raiding of media houses by a brutal police force is no longer breaking news in the ears of the public because this is expected whenever the excesses of government functionaries has been exposed. In March 2006, Kenyans were shocked when heavily armed police officers invaded the Kenya Television Network (KTN) premises in Nairobi and ransacked all its offices and destroyed news equipment before shutting down its television studio. We see signs of a return to those days.

The recent use of disinformation and fake news targeting Nation and Standard Media groups following their coverage of the failure of government systems is one of the emerging forms of threats to press freedom and the right to freedom of speech and the right to information. Such fake news about the two media houses is aimed at undermining the people's confidence in our media houses who have been consistent in their efforts in exposing government ineptitude in governance by the Constitution. The intention is aimed at other media outlets engaged in journalistic duties of keeping the government accountable to the people of Kenya. In places such as the United States such a role for the media is taken for granted. Further, another ugly form of attack on press freedom in Kenya is the recent withdrawal of government advertising in the mainstream media outlets. It's an indicator of an emerging culture of intolerance that is defining the Ruto administration.

President William Ruto has been invited to make a state visit to the US and has even been accorded the rare honor of addressing a joint session of the US Congress.

We have achieved our current status as an emerging democratic society by borrowing from American governance institutions. It will not be impolite for our American friends to remind our president that respect for human rights and constitutional values is what has defined and deepened our two countries’ people-to-people relationship.

And so as we mark the celebration of this year’s International Press Freedom Day we must rededicate ourselves to a commitment to protect the values of free speech and press freedom as the very foundation to a tolerant stable and peaceful nation where rule of law and respect for human rights are respected. We must take stock of the milestones the Kenya press has made vis-a-vis its challenges and the roadblocks that lie ahead.

 The Kenyan media practitioner should be encouraged to remain steadfast at the forefront in our endeavors to promote and protect the right to information.

The media should project the voice of the people which remains after the expiry of the term of office of the political class which has a definite end point in law.  The media must remain the frontline warriors in the defence of our fledgling democracy.