“The only security of all is in a free press.”
The media is an extremely vital tool in our society today. Even in a world that is slowly moving towards fully embracing the digital space, we rely heavily on the media for true, accountable information. This means that for anyone who is in this space, there are millions of people that believe in your word and your information. That’s why the media must strive to be fully objective while at the same time disseminating true and honest information. But what happens when certain factors interfere with media freedom? Where do we draw the line between media freedom and the limits to media freedom to protect individuals, institutions, and other stakeholders?
As someone who is in the industry, the ideal space for me would be free, honest, and accountable. I would not want to be silenced for as long as I am passing on authentic and credible information. Why? Because the media acts as a watchdog of society, and without this, a lot of ills in society come to pass.
By definition, media freedom is the ability of journalists to report freely on matters of public interest. It is a crucial indicator of democracy. A free press can inform citizens of their leaders’ successes or failures, convey the people’s needs and desires to government bodies, and provide a platform for the open exchange of information and ideas.
That’s in an ideal situation, but it varies depending on the country. The freedom of the press in Kenya cannot be the same as that in Tanzania. Ideologies and democratic systems differ and play a big role in the objectivity of the media.
In Kenya, there has been a lot of controversy pointing towards the fact that the press does not, in fact, enjoy freedom. According to Macharia Gaitho, who is the former chairman of Kenya Editors Guild, as much as the President says he supports media freedom, his commitments and actions do not reflect the reality.
While articles 33-35 of the Constitution give the media the mandate to charge their duties freely, the government still piles pressure on media houses to force compliance and kills critical reports and commentaries, according to Mr. Gaitho.
There have been several instances where media freedom has been threatened in Kenya. In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented how the government has attempted to obstruct critical journalists with legal, administrative, and informal measures, including threats, intimidation, harassment, online and phone surveillance, and in some cases, physical assaults.
Early in 2018, KFCB banned the screening of a film Rafiki, featuring a lesbian relationship. They later lifted the ban following public outcry.
This year, during World Press Freedom Day, the CEO of the Media Council of Kenya Mr. Omwoyo stated that Kenya dropped three places and is currently ranked position 103 out of 180 countries globally in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. This, he noted, is a worrying trend and can only be remedied by the media continuing to highlight and isolate individual perpetrators of heinous crimes against journalists and ensuring that justice is served.
The president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, has commented on the matter several times. His take is that the media in Kenya do not enjoy absolute freedom of publication and broadcast as they wish because of irresponsible handling of certain information. So it is the mandate of the Government under the Ministry of Information and Communication to defend those who cannot protect themselves against media.
You may be wondering what the big deal is. Why should we keep fighting for media freedom? What stake do we have as the youth? Well, media freedom is directly proportional to the accountability of the government and of other stakeholders. Journalists are tasked to get to the bottom of issues, and if there are barriers to this, how exactly can they do this?
Freedom of the press is the foundation of so many other things. A free press helps to inform the voters, and informed voters leads to stronger democracies. In other words, the media is tasked with the responsibility of providing checks and balances to the government, institutions, and individuals as well.
The problem is that press freedom comes with its perks, and perhaps that is why there are limitations. If the press is completely free to publish what they want, it can lead to the dissemination of fake news. These are false stories that appear to be news, spreading on the internet, or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke. Other times, false news stories have a sensational nature and are created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue. Sometimes they promote or discredit a public figure, political movement, or a company.
For example, back in 2018, a man booked the death announcement of someone by the name “Jimmy Wanjagi” in a popular Kenyan newspaper. The obituary was bearing a picture of Jimmy Wanjigi, a Kenyan businessman and political strategist. The ‘obituary’ included eerily exact details pertaining to the prominent businessman’s life. It was a clear indicator of someone with ill intentions, and the High Court eventually awarded Mr. Jimmy Wanjigi 8 million Kenyan shillings for the fake obituary.
In a world where there are no limitations to freedom of the press, such cases would not be a big deal. Now imagine the press pushing forward inciteful or spiteful propaganda? Given the freedom, we might not be able to differentiate truth from lies.
Fake news also comes up in the digital world. While this internet era allows for people to air their views on the internet, it’s easy for any individual to pick up the phone and put something up that is false or even malicious, without any accountability. That’s where digital rights come in. These are human rights in the internet era. The rights to online privacy and freedom of expression are extensions of the equal and inalienable rights laid out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While many jurisdictions in Africa have attempted to address issues of digital rights through legislation, a lot is yet to be achieved. In our Kenyan context, for example, we need to be wary of surveillance technologies. According to Digital rights activist Grace Mutung’u, the state is getting more and more power to surveil. These surveillance technologies obviously affect freedom of expression. She says, “If you know that every move is being followed, it has a chilling effect on what you can say online. How much can you question the government? We are getting to a point where it is very hard to stay anonymous in Kenya because most Internet use is through mobile phones and these are connected to a number that is registered.”
The question then becomes, how can the media, individuals, and institutions have freedom of expression, while at the same time being accountable with their information? What role do the youth play in making this possible? Media regulation is necessary to a certain extent. But at the same time, media freedom must be protected at all costs.
In my opinion, we need policies to be put in place, such that all information that is disseminated has backed-up evidence. The information should be accountable, factual, and credible. Media practitioners must act with impartiality and professionalism. That way, what is shared to the public will be more fact-based rather than opinionated. By doing so, the media, the government, and other stakeholders’ will all be victorious.