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August 21, 2018

Order! Parliament must respect media

National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi during the swearing-in of MPs in Parliament/FILE
National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi during the swearing-in of MPs in Parliament/FILE

Media freedom suffered a heinous assault last week. On Tuesday, July 31, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi ordered the People Daily reporters Anthony Mwangi and Dinah Ondari to appear before the Powers and Privileges committee to answer questions related to stories carried in the paper.

Now, on what grounds does Parliament summon journalists to explain stories they publish? What would be the outcome of such interrogation? Determination of innocence or guilt? And then what?

“They must be given a fair hearing, as the information they have may help us streamline our operations. They must be treated with utmost respect. But they must answer all questions,” Muturi said. Sounds quite harmless – until you think about it. First, the promise of a fair hearing. Muturi issued his summons after MPs complained reports appearing in the People Daily demeaned them and the dignity of the House.

For two consecutive days last week, the paper hit Parliament like a thunderbolt. ‘House of bribes’, read the splash on July 30. The language was colourful: “House committees are dens of leeches and grounds infested by shoals of piranhas driven by lust for self-gain”, the People Daily stated. It described MPs as “rent-seekers” and “spin doctors” engaged in “dirty dealings.”

On July 31, the newspaper carried another splash headlined ‘How MPs mint millions’. The report detailed the hefty perks the legislators enjoy and how they use their positions to make more money. So, Parliament was the aggrieved party. How could the same House promise “a fair hearing” to the people it was complaining about?

Second, Muturi said the information Mwangi and Ondari had might help him and his people do a better job. No sir, the information is contained in the published reports. Go read them. The scribes cannot, and should not, give any other information to any interrogators.

Journalists gather, package and disseminate information about matters of public interest. They cannot offer any specialised service to Parliament or any other institution. If they wish to do so, they must first resign their posts as journalists.

And third, Muturi said the two reporters should be treated with utmost respect when they appear before the House. Treating people with respect is good. But, Muturi said, “they must answer all questions”. That is intimidation. The directive has sparked an outcry from the media fraternity and citizens, especially on social media. He seemed to beat a hasty retreat. He tweeted:

“I have called parliamentary reporters and assured them of my support as they cover all happenings in Bunge. Seen divided opinions on the summoned reporters to appear before the Powers & Privileges Committee. Right to information is sacred, will be protected in the @NAssemblyKE.”

Yet on the same day Muturi tweeted, Parliament delivered a letter to the offices of Mediamax Network Limited, publishers of the People Daily, summoning editor-in-chief Peter Opondo to appear before the Powers and Privileges committee to be questioned about the reports.

The newspaper reported on Thursday one of its reporters had been threatened by two MPs. “One of them approached me insisting we must go appear before Parliament and apologise, failure to which they would ban us from covering the proceedings. He even said though they know they cannot bring down Mediamax, they can ruin my career,” Ondari said.

Ahem, two quick things: One, media disputes are adjudicated by the Media Council of Kenya. That is the agency mandated by the law to guarantee anyone aggrieved by the media a fair hearing.

And two – related to one – journalists have no obligation whatsoever to heed summons like Muturi’s. His order amounts to intimidation. It constitutes abuse of office of Speaker of the National Assembly and a threat to media freedom protected by the Constitution.

The order violates Article 2 of the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya, which binds reporters to “gather and report news without fear or favour, and resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertises, sources, story subjects, powerful individuals and special interest groups.”

As for the threats to ban the reporters from covering Parliament, they are laughable. What are the waheshimiwas so scared of? The media and citizens must remain vigilant at all times, guarding our hard-won rights and freedoms.

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