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Journalists eyeing political seats should bid newsrooms goodbye

By David Omwoyo | Jan 25th 2022 | 4 min read

A section of Media covering a press conference at the Council of Governors in Nairobi on January 5, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

With the general election barely six months away, the influence of the media is at its peak with a lot of expectation on them. During election times, citizens rely on the media to enhance their understanding of the electoral processes so that they can make informed choices at the ballot. Media as an enabler for democracy, having better-informed voters would lead to a more acceptable and credible election.

Politicians rely on the media to sell their agenda to the electorate. Media provides candidates and political parties the tools to reach the people and inform them about key issues ranging from policies to elections. Various media outlets, through news coverage and programmes, provide different partisan policy stances that are associated with political participation.

Kenya, just like other parts of the world, has seen leaders ascending to political office due to their work in the media. Journalists wield an important weapon and power, given their proximity to masses, thanks to their various platforms. Immediate former US President Donald Trump will unequivocally tell you that journalists wield immense power over the US political process. Political scholars have attributed his meteoric rise in US politics to his media manouvres.

At what level should journalists interested in participating in elective politics vacate the newsroom to avoid conflict of interest or using their newsroom’s position and space to the disadvantage of their competitors? This brings the question of where the line should be drawn between continued stay in the media space and vying for political office. What is good practice and professional for journalists wishing to plunge into the world of politics?

The Kenyan law provides that civil servants seeking political offices should resign six months to the general election. It is on this basis that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) imposed a February 9 deadline on those eyeing elective seats to resign. Resignations have started by civil servants following the directive. Notably, some corporate leaders have also followed suit and resigned from their businesses in open consideration of the implication political activities can have on their enterprises.

When we launched the Guidelines for Election Coverage in September last year, the Media Council of Kenya called upon journalists and media practitioners seeking political seats in the 2022 General Election to resign from their posts ahead of the polls. As it applies in the public service where civil servants intending to vie for political office are required to leave office six months to elections and are under strict edicts not to use their space and influence to campaign for political office, the media is no exception.

It is unethical for a journalist aspiring for an elective position to sit in a studio discussing politics and election they will participate in as candidates. It is ethically wrong and a breach of the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya to use media space to campaign unfairly. In the same vein, there has been widespread outcry from elected leaders and their supporters over personalised attacks against them by talk show hosts eyeing elected positions, for their political mileage.

Some aspirants use their media platforms to deny their competitors space to engage in debates meant to enable voters make an issue-based assessment of the candidates. This is unfair competition that goes against the rules of the political game. It equally erodes public trust in the media. Audiences should be able to trust the media and be confident that editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, including political anxieties.

Journalists and media practitioners intending to vie for elective positions should not to use their positions to influence their election or to attack or deny their opponents rightful space to sell their agenda. Perception about skewed media performance or journalists being partisan greatly erodes credibility in the media, people can detect conflict of interest or favouritism in media content or programming and in extreme detect people using the media to give themselves undue advantage over others. Frequency are national resources that should not be used exclusively to deny others fair chances, especially in the electoral processes.

The media play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy. It is obvious that candidates using their media platforms will be biased in discussions of the media's functions within electoral contexts, which often focuses on their "watchdog" role. This will in turn impact unfettered scrutiny and discussion of the successes and failures of candidates, governments and electoral management bodies. With the respective candidates having their own agenda, the media’s role to inform the public and hold leaders to account is compromised.

Such issues have also contributed to threats against journalists’ safety given perceptions by the electorate and political party supporters of certain candidates and their affiliation to certain media organisations. This poses a grave danger to media freedom in the country.

It is only right that media workers intending to vie for political office step aside to enable the media to effectively play its role in enabling full public participation in elections by educating voters on how to exercise their democratic rights, by exposing and subjecting candidates to public scrutiny and reporting on the development of an election campaign and eventual outcome. The media should be used for public good and not a tool for pushing individual political interests.

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