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MCK fast becoming a threat to press freedom

By Churchill Otieno | March 2nd 2020

The Kenya Editors’ Guild has noted with grave concern the Media Council of Kenya’s (MCK) statement issued on February 27, 2020 entitled, ‘Seek the truth and report it – cause no harm’.

The Guild takes serious exception to such accusations and would like to protest the affront to media and editorial integrity and credibility. It is indeed sad and alarming that MCK, a body constitutionally mandated to protect independent journalism, can resort to threats and blanket condemnation in clear breach of media freedom in Kenya.

The MCK statement accuses the media of serial “betrayal of public interest and violations of the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya”. The statement further claims there is a pattern of screaming headlines without corresponding and appropriate content, multiple repetitions of headlines over a short period of time, as well as partisan and skewed coverage and presentation of news and current affairs.

Aggrieved party

These are very serious accusations. If upheld, they amount to a severe indictment of the Kenyan media, and questions the integrity and credibility of not only the media, but also editors and journalists who are committed to the provision of credible information Kenyans need for social and civic development.

Where there is failure, clear mechanisms are provided in law for resolution. Therefore, unfounded accusations are most unhelpful as they seriously erode the trust Kenyans have in the media as a key institution necessary for upholding democracy, good governance, the rule of law, promotion of human rights and other important values in society.

We are perplexed that beyond generalised and blanket condemnation, MCK does not cite any example of the breaches of the Code of Conduct complained about. Neither is there any indication as to the identity of any aggrieved party that may have lodged a complaint. We find this irresponsible and negligent at the least. MCK houses the entity with a legal mandate to arbitrate in the media – the Complaints Commission. If indeed a specific complaint has been lodged, then this deserves diligent attention through the well laid-down procedures.

MCK says it reached its conclusions following critical analyses of media content in the last few months, but fails to provide any evidence on the existence of such a study, period undertaken, terms of reference, methodology, authors and presentation of a report and recommendations. In the absence of such evidence, it is clear that the MCK is out of control, is overstepping its mandate, and is clearly a threat to media freedom.

These fears are not new. The Kenya Editors’ Guild has frequently cautioned that MCK is displaying worrying traits in seeking to place curbs on constitutional guarantees of media freedom. In July 2019, the Guild appeared before a committee appointed by the MCK to review relationships with other media associations. In our presentation we noted that it is worth remembering that the Media Council of Kenya is the child of a long struggle towards securing and entrenching a free and independent media.

Veered towards

This was a struggle waged not in isolation, but as part of the broader struggle for a just and democratic society, culminating in the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1991 and enactment of the new Constitution in 2010. From that broad canvas, we see the Media Council of Kenya not as a prefect or overseer, but as a partner of the media representative associations.

In November 2019, the Kenya Editors’ Guild voiced concern on draft accreditation guidelines published by the MCK. This is what we cautioned on guidelines supposedly meant to enhance professional and ethical media, but which in our view veered towards restriction: “We ask for specific attention to the principle that regulation is not control; that persuasion and buy-in is preferable to the penal approach; and the need to ease rather than restrict entry into journalism.”

These positions were informed by indications that MCK was veering off its core mandate, and seeking to impose itself as a government agency to control the media. The latest statement on purported breaches of the Code of Conduct only reinforces such fears. MCK is the regulator of media in Kenya, but this in no way gives it a right to interfere with editorial independence. The Kenya Editors’ Guild is aware that the statement has caused a great deal of apprehension within the media fraternity.

We ask MCK to provide any evidence on which its statement was based, or withdraw the statement and apologise to the media, journalists and Kenyans. 

Mr Otieno is the president of the Kenya Editors’ Guild

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