Kenya, on Monday, joined the globe in celebrating the World Press Freedom Day that is observed annually on 4th May with this year’s theme being “Information as a public good”. The 2021 theme proves relevant and timely for Kenya given the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Besides battling the Coronavirus pandemic, Kenya is currently operating in a very busy political environment owing to the conversation on amending the Constitution and the general elections that are just 15 months away. Both of which require the citizen’s involvement. Which then brings in the crucial role the fourth estate plays especially in the era of misinformation.
In Kenya’s fight against Covid-19, media has played a key role in educating the masses on the virus, highlighting violation of human rights by law enforcement, holding leadership accountable and unearthing corruption in relation to Covid-19 funds. This, however, has not been a walk in the park as journalists have been faced by a myriad of challenges in their quest to expose ills committed, especially by authorities.
For instance, information on Kemsa’s procurement was not readily available until the President gave a directive to the Ministry of Health to avail this information on Kemsa’s website for the public to access. This is despite Kenya having passed an Access to Information Act (ATIA) in 2016 that compels public entities to disclose information, including that which concerns contracts. Journalists were also subjected to harassment by police in their line of duty as was witnessed during the early stages of the enforcement of the 7pm nationwide curfew last year. Media also played a key role in dispelling misinformation that posed a great threat in the country’s efforts to fight the virus.
These challenges continue to stand in the way of the freedom and independence of media that is provided for under Article 34 of the Constitution. Recently, the country watched in shock as an expose revealed how police officers are in the business of hiring out their equipment to thugs who rob from and even kill Kenyans. As expected, the Citizen TV feature story caused an uproar among Kenyans who called for accountability among the police service. Surprisingly, the Director of the DCI, Mr George Kinoti came out to disown the firearms used in the expose, saying a ballistic examination showed that they didn’t belong to the police. He added that the Citizen TV crew did not consult the police before airing the story. This however could have amounted to interference of journalistic work especially since Kenyan media isn’t new to intimidation and harassment from authorities.
Shortly after the expose, there were reports that the police assigned to Royal Media Services, the mother company to Citizen TV, were withdrawn. As to whether or not this was linked to the expose, it brings another aspect of risk related to investigative journalism. This presents the need for the enactment of a whistleblower protection law that will provide a proper framework to protect journalists who risk their lives in the course of their work. Current Nyali MP and former KTN investigative journalist, Mohamed Ali aka “Jicho Pevu” had on several occasions been forced to flee to foreign land over threats on his life following damning exposes. Unfortunately, other journalists both locally and internationally were not lucky enough to escape with their lives.
Owing to the history of intimidation, harassment and killing of journalists, the state ought to provide a conducive environment for the media to operate in optimally. This can be actualized by enactment of laws that protect them and the full implementation of certain existing laws like the ATIA that allow media to execute their duties to satisfaction. It would be a tragedy if the media were subdued into silence when the citizenry and civil society heavily depend on them for an alternative voice.