Vernacular political debates: Kenya’s Editors’ Guild accuses government of interference

Kenya Editors Guild President Churchil Otieno [Samson Wire. Standard].

Just days after ICT and Youth Affairs Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru appointed a task force to oversee localised political debates  in the country, the Kenya Editors’ Guild has opposed the move, terming it ‘State interference in editorial work during a general election’.

The Kenya Editors’ Guild has written to the CS asking him to rescind the decision in the interest of media freedom.

In a 13-point statement to members by its President Churchill Otieno, the Kenya Editors’ Guild says: “Editorial work, especially during an election, is the primary and inviolable duty of the news media in a democratic society. State officers and state agencies have no role in this and must reject any temptation to interfere, as that would be an invitation to engage in illegalities.

“Indeed, the Constitution of Kenya (2010), at Article 34, expressly bars the State from controlling and/or interfering in editorial matters. Article 34 of the Constitution of Kenya guarantees Freedom of the Media”.

On Friday, Mucheru gazetted a 15-member committee to be chaired by Sammy Muraya deputised by Phyllis Wakiaga to handle what is essentially a content management function.

The 15-member technical working group that comprises among others, Rose Wakio, Martin Masai, Vincent Ateya, Joel Karanja, Stephen Kangongo and Tom Mboya has been tasked with assessing the ability of community and vernacular media to execute governorship, senatorship, and woman representative debates ahead of the August polls.

The Kenya Editors’ Guild now says the appointment ‘came as a surprise to them when the CS unilaterally appointed’ the technical working group.

“While Masai did not have any prior knowledge of the conception, selection, appointment and gazettement, Muraya had had a previous conversation with an official in the Ministry of ICT, on the sidelines of a media event two weeks ago but did not expect gazettement. They were listed in their capacities and do not represent the Guild in this task force,” Otieno notes in part.

According to the Guild, the Gazette Notice is Unconstitutional, illegal and untenable in the context of democratic discourse for several reasons.

Writes Otieno:

a) The involvement of the Cabinet Secretary on issues of the news media through the Gazette Notice amounts to control and interference with the Independence of the Media. This explicitly violates Article 34(2).

b) The Gazette Notice is silent on what law the CS is using to set up the team.

c) It is to be noted that how media houses, whether local, regional or national, carry out debates is an editorial function. Moreover, in conducting debates, which are essential in democratic electoral discourse, the media houses are required to exercise utmost independence and impartiality.

d) The technical working group is in this case a ministerial committee reporting directly to the CS and issuing periodic reports to the CS.

e) Whereas the work of the Technical Working Committee will significantly impact the workings of media houses, the same was not founded on any consultative and inclusive process. This contravenes the values of transparency, public participation, and inclusivity. The process contemplated by the Cabinet Secretary instead runs parallel to what the Media Industry players have themselves put in place to ensure coverage of the elections including debates by aspirants.

In its resolutions, the Guild has faulted the CS for usurping his powers, noting that the Gazette Notice putting in place the Technical Working Group violates the Constitution, the Media Council Act and the Elections Act considering the process by which it has been established, functions and the Governmental entities involved in its working.

“The stated problem that the CS is seeking to address does not require the state to appoint anybody. It is a matter squarely for practitioners. The CS does not have the power to direct media houses on how to cover elections, including debates,” said Otieno.

The task force committee, whose secretariat is the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), has three female appointees out of 15 members.

However, Media Council of Kenya (MCK) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) David Omwoyo told The Standard that the CS consulted them before making the appointments and had not breached any mandate.

“What the CS has done is gazette the taskforce as a legal entity. He has allowed MCK to spend public funds to create awareness and spread information. He does not know these people,” Omwoyo said.

The Kenya Editors’ Guild, while calling on the CS to rescind his decision further said, “Media players - under the auspices of the Kenya Media Sector Working Group (comprising 20 media associations and organisations) – in the spirit of partnership and the shared desire to see us execute our mandate in a democratic process, to unite, collaborate and engage to address any gaps that currently hamper the media from playing its effective role in reporting the election.”

The 2022 presidential debate will be held in July, one month before the elections. The Media Owner’s Association launched a joint venture with the Kenya Editors Guild and the Media Council of Kenya to organise the country’s third presidential debate.

The presidential debate secretariat will be headed by Clifford Machoka, of the Nation Media Group.

The secretariat has also been tasked with organising the 2022 deputy presidential debate. Debates serve the role of among other things, providing a platform for Kenyans to gauge aspirants.

Mature democracies such as the United States have, for long, held presidential and deputy presidential debates. Each candidate will prove their case to the electorate.