Press freedom is near yet far, let's commit to protect guardians of truth

Journalists in action. Incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists persist. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Resilience and strength are not without burdens. This, perhaps, is the biggest lesson we can learn as we mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day tomorrow.  

In making our shrill voices heard, we must re-imagine the media’s role in fostering accountability, justice and transparency. On this day, it’s imperative to build on the gains and address attendant challenges with sobriety and precision.      

Themed “A Press for the Planet: Journalism in the face of the Environmental Crisis”, this year’s commemoration underscores the critical role of journalism in conservation. It points to the need to amplify every voice at the forefront of environmental advocacy and reporting.

In Kenya, where environmental issues like floods demand attention, the media’s role in galvanising action is paramount. This month alone, over 150 people have been killed and thousands injured or left homeless by floods. Only a few months back, the worst drought in 40 years swept through the Horn of Africa. It’s a call to action moment.

However, as we mark the day, it’s crucial to confront the stark realities captured in UNESCO’s latest report. The findings unveil declining press freedom levels worldwide, with a staggering 85 percent of the global population experiencing setbacks.

A similar report indicts Kenya for plummeting to the 116th position on the World Press Freedom Index 2023. According to Reporters Without Borders, this represents a fall of 47 positions just within a year. Kenya was ranked at position 69 in the 2022 report.

Incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists persist to the chagrin of everyone. The Media Council of Kenya’s documentation of over 100 such incidents in the past year alone is a testament to troubles journalists face in fulfilling their duty.

On the safety front, we reiterate calls for the establishment of safety and protection mechanisms, the creation of safety funds, trauma counselling, safety training, and promotion of dialogue between media and security institutions.

The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary should go flat out to ensure a conducive environment for the media. This entails enacting and enforcing laws that guarantee press freedom and access to information. There have also been jitters over recent State advertising decrees widely seen to be lopsided. Good news is that President Ruto has himself reiterated that underhand and surreptitious schemes to weaken the media will be a thing of the past. 

Meanwhile, as a regulator, MCK believes the media industry must be beyond reproach. The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya is clear. Again, the industry must innovate and address the digital disruption. Investing in training, implementing safety protocols and fostering dialogue are essential steps towards enhancing the industry’s viability and resilience.

On this auspicious occasion for the Fourth Estate, let’s commit to the journey towards a truly free and vibrant media landscape.

Without doubt, the media needs the goodwill of every player to thrive. It is not about lack of laws. Kenya is a signatory to international instruments on freedom of expression, media freedom, and access to information which have been domesticated through Articles 33, 34, and 35 of the Constitution. Other subsidiary laws include the Access to Information Act, 2016, the Media Council Act, 2013, and The Kenya Information and Communication Act, 1998.

With the support of the government, civil society, media owners and other stakeholders, we can only make it better. Let’s reaffirm our loyalty to protecting the guardians of truth and defending the principles of independent media.