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Press freedom dream elusive, decades later

By - | May 10th 2013 | 4 min read


Press freedom is a rumbling issue in every regime, as boundaries are tested and principles constantly defined and redefined, and Kenya has been no exception. But talking about the relationship has always been a slightly difficult and contorted affair, as the story carried by The Standard on May 10, 1983 attests.

The story reported how a Daily Nation correspondent Paul Muhoho had authored a story accusing the police of harassment and paying ‘unnecessary’ visits to his home in Nakuru on the pretext of searching for him. The Standard splashed the story of the police response on page one, as: Tipis hits at ‘Nation’.

Today the story of the police hunting down a journalist would barely pass for a filler on a prime page. But in 1983, when the story was published, it wasn’t uncommon to see rival establishments report it as big story or as adverts.

Then Minister of State in the Office of the President Justus ole Tipis had hit out at Daily Nation for claiming policemen had been harassing its correspondent.

“Reacting to a news item carried in page one of yesterday’s issue of the newspaper, which said men claiming to be policemen visited Muhoho’s home at Ojukwu estate in Nakuru last Friday for the fourth time, Tipis said the Government would not tolerate unresearched and unauthenticated stories, whose objective appeared to be causing alarm and despondency,” reported The Standard.

Press Freedom vs Responsibility

The story was based on a statement that had been issued by Tipis the previous day in Nakuru in which the minister said the matter had ‘regrettably dragged on for too long without any real evidence or facts on the matter’.

The police had no idea the issue would grab newspaper headlines. It seemed the visits to Muhoho’s home were meant to intimidate the correspondent and stop him reporting some sensitive issues, but the plot backfired when the two biggest newspapers started giving the issue more attention than it deserved.

Tipis swiftly reminded all that Press freedom was guaranteed by the Constitution. “However, the Press, and the Daily Nation in particular, must be reminded of their duty to enjoy and exercise this freedom responsibly and in the interest of the welfare of the people. This means the news items they publish ought to be authenticated before being printed. This is more so in sensitive issues affecting the life, liberty and the security of the citizens,” reported the paper, adding that, unfortunately, in the matter of Muhoho and the Nakuru police, the Daily Nation seemed to have been wide off the mark.”

The matter dragged on for some time, with tits and tats about the visits, the identities, the point of all the police interrogations of Muhoho, but in the end, it was a tale that faded out — to be followed by relations in the years to follow that marked much greater drama in the delicate balance of Press freedom.

Just last month, the Standard Group reporters Mohammed Ali and John Allan Namu were threatened by people thought to be police, following investigative stories they aired on KTN. As things stand, in 2013, the threats drew no safety reassurance from the State.

Similarly, in the run-up to the last general elections, photojournalists Dennis Okeyo and John Otanga reported that GSU officers confiscated memory cards from their cameras and other valuables as they covered riots in Kibera.

Survey on journalists’ safety

However, far more boldly, a few years back, the State used foreign masked mercenaries to lead an attack into the Standard Group newsroom under the pretext of an alleged exposé which the Government claimed threatened national security. However, the Standard Group maintains there was none.

Even earlier, in the clamour for multi-party politics in the 1990s, several journalists were arrested and locked up, allegedly for being against the Government, revealing absolute low point in the country’s poor score on Press freedom.

Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta assured all he would be upholding media freedom, as part of his address during the Freedom of the Press Day.

Fifty years into Kenya’s history, Press freedom is most clearly not at its lowest point, nor has it reached a level where journalists’ security is secured: a point made resoundingly just days ago by the Media Council, with its launching of a baseline survey on the safety of Kenyan journalists, and conclusions that many in the profession still feel far from safe.

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Editorial Cartoon : 10.05.2013
Editorial Cartoon : 10.05.2013
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