We can measure the openness of societies by the way our journalists are treated.
As the world approaches World Press Freedom Day on May 3, this year’s General Elections are already testing media freedoms and the public’s right to be informed. At their very best, journalists are inconvenient truth-tellers and protectors of our public conscience. An open, informed, and democratic society is impossible without investigative evidence-based journalism as our moral compass. These standards are stress-tested hardest in moments of elections, coups, and conflict across the world.
Over 400 journalists have been killed over the last six years. While most of these journalists were working in Iraq (201), Mexico (139) or the Philippines (112), journalists also lost their lives in neighbouring Somalia (75), Democratic Republic of Congo (14) and South Sudan (10). According to UNESCO also, one journalist is killed somewhere in the world every five days. Behind these statistics lies an even greater risk, impunity. Nine out of ten cases remain unresolved.
While the number of deaths is thankfully reducing, the number of imprisoned journalists is increasing. So too, is the digital threats journalists face from online harassment, non-consensual surveillance, and hacking. Agencies like Access Now and Article 19 are now receiving increased appeals for online protection from journalists. Many of them are women. As many as three out of every four woman journalists experience online violence.
While Kenya is not among the most dangerous countries in the world, we have been steadily slipping in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2021, we were ranked 102 out of 180 countries. Behind this mediocre ranking are autocratic media laws and the fact that most media houses are controlled by very few people, many of whom are associated with politicians or State officers. The active discouraging of journalists from joining the Kenyan Union of Journalists by media houses is another.
The fourth is the consistent assault and intimidation of journalists. At least three journalists, Francis Nyaruri (2009), John Kituyi (2015) and Betty Barasa (2021) were killed by assailants. Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of Bosire Bogonko.
Others have have left the country for their own personal safety. Left uninterrupted, Kenya’s journalists face a difficult moment ahead. The Media Council has documented no less than 20 assault cases so far.
This is a four-fold increase from the five cases at the same time before the 2017 elections. In the lead to the last elections, Walter Menya was arrested for implicating State officers in illegal public financing of a private foundation. Winnie Atieno’s phone was destroyed for covering the ODM primaries and Emmanuel Namisi was seriously assaulted by Bungoma Governor Ken Lusaka's bodyguards.
Law enforcement agencies are legally obligated to protect journalists and citizens right to information. The Communications Authority must desist from issuing arbitrary pre-election directives. Denying or discouraging media houses the opportunity to hold gubernatorial or presidential debates restricts the very reason for having a free and vibrant media.
While journalists cannot be denied political choices, they do have an obligation to report on all candidates fairly and accurately. Their employers must ensure physical and digital safety protocols are in place. Sadly, helmets, vests, helplines, evacuation strategies and emergency medical care will be as important as notebooks, recorders, and cameras.
We can be encouraged by the Media Council’s early pre-emptive planning and Joe Ageyo Inter-Agency call taskforce call to media houses to leave no journalist behind to be tear-gassed, stoned or beaten.
Lastly, journalists must be reminded that not reporting violence increases the danger to them and all Kenyan journalists. Keeping the patronage of the powerful by settling out of court means violence will continue unpunished.
Threatening, bribing or physically assaulting journalists are election and constitutional offenses. Both journalists and their employers must demand criminal investigation and prosecution.