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War for media freedom in Kenya far from over

By | February 24th 2011

Jared Obuya

Coming hot on the heels of the peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) couldn’t have released its annual report at a better time for us in this part of the world.

The report, Attacks on The Press in 2010, not only details the threats to journalists and the efforts to redress them; it reveals the sad link between bad governance and corruption amid rising demands by increasingly enlightened citizens.

Everywhere on the continent, from South Africa to Egypt, Governments are mulling more authoritarian controls in response to media exposÈs about corruption, nepotism and bad governance. But for legitimate exceptions, it has been demonstrated that a country is best served if the media has freedom and relevant information in the Government’s hands is made public.

Experts note that countries that have allowed open access to information encounter few, if any, problems with press freedom, but also score well in press freedom and governance rankings. It is testament to the audacity of the non-progressive forces among us that Kenya should feature in a league table of despotic regimes. As the report notes, we are also trailing in the worldwide recognition of the journalistic privilege to protect sources.

Everline Kwamboka, a reporter of The Standard , who in 2006 became the first Kenyan journalist ordered by a court to reveal her sources, was harassed until a superior judge reversed the ruling. Such tactics are meant to undercut access to information by the media by intimidating both journalists and their sources.

They are consistent with a trend whereby journalists seeking access to information are usually confronted with bureaucratic procedures and measures aimed at concealing information under the pretext of public ethics, national security and other elastic terms that wrongly restrict the public’s right to know. As a result, corruption has been thriving in the country.

As the media industry in Kenya watches, the Government is actively seeking to re-introduce media control through the judiciary and the Judicial Service Commission, contrary to provisions in the new Constitution.

According to the new Constitution, "the state shall not exercise control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium". By enacting the Media Bill 2010, the Government will have effectively reversed this fundamental gain in the new Constitution. The Bill, proposed by the Ministry of Information and Communication, does away with the principle of self-regulation and places media regulation under another arm of the Government, the Judiciary.

The new Bill – while borrowing heavily from the Media Act 2007, which set up a media council controlled by the industry – proposes a council on which citizenship and a university degree are the only qualifications for one to sit.

Under the current Act, stakeholders in the media industry appointed respected colleagues in the profession to sit on the Media Council of Kenya, mandated to, among other things, ensure professional standards and mediate or arbitrate disputes. This is the principle of self-regulation, which is a democratic practice all over the world.

The changes to the Media Act, expected to go to Parliament any time soon, give sweeping powers to the Chief Justice to appoint members of the statutory Media Council and indirectly superintend its operations. The Government’s claim of seeking to enhance the Council’s independence rings hollow in light of the excessive powers over the Council proposed for the Chief Justice and the Judicial Service Commission, and suppression of the profession’s voices currently in the Council.

The amendments would in effect subject journalists to control by the Judiciary, thereby undermining the letter of the new Constitution which unequivocally protects freedoms of the media and citizens’ right to uncensored information. The envisaged Media Council would in fact be another unnecessary appendage of the Judiciary.

Kenyans should resist these changes. We are in tumultuous times when the media is the key institution steadfastly championing accountability in Government, Parliament having been weakened by ethnic power games and the Judiciary mired in a credibility crisis.

With the lines that once divided reformers and anti-reformers getting blurred, the media is the sole credible voice against corruption, injustice and bad governance.

The writer is the Secretary-General of the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ)

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