OWALO: For societies to be safe, scribes must first be safe

We are committed to our role as duty bearers in the protection of freedom of the Media.

In Summary
  • In the age of the free flow of ideas, censorship remains a challenge as it ever has been in the deepest dark past.
  • Let me emphasize that in order for our societies to be safe, the custodians of information must first be safe.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo.

I am exceptionally delighted to join you at this very important gathering.

We are assembled here to celebrate the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, in the United Nations Calendar.

In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, set aside May 3, for the global community, in its entirety, to remind itself of the centrality of Press freedom as the epitome of liberty.

On this day, we must pause from our regular activities, for collective reflection on the health of our liberty, as seen through the lenses of Press freedom.

World Press Freedom Day reminds us of threats and offensives against Press freedom as threats and offensives against humanity.

The highest on the list is violence against journalists, regardless of the guise that the violence might take-verbal, structural or physical.

We are reminded that in diverse places across the global community, journalists have paid the ultimate prize while on duty, or because of being faithful to duty.

Journalists continue to face legal harassment and political incarceration because of their faithfulness to duty.

In the age of the free flow of ideas, censorship remains a challenge as it ever has been in the deepest dark past.

Let me emphasize that for our societies to be safe, the custodians of information must first be safe.

As the government, we recognize journalists as critical integral players in the sustainable human development agenda. We are committed to our role as duty bearers in the protection of freedom of the Media.

Kenya is a signatory to the various international instruments on Freedom of Expression and media freedom which have been domesticated through Articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution.

Other laws providing for the same include the Access to Information Act, 2016, the Media Council Act, 2013 and the Kenya Information and Communication Act, 1998.

Access to information is increasingly recognized as a prerequisite for sustainable development and for claiming human rights.

With SDG 16, the target (16.10) to promote access to information is also anchored in the 2030 Agenda.

The Declaration on Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa provides a set of standards on the right to access information (principles 26 to 36).

In Kenya, Access to Information is provided under Article 35 of the Constitution and actualized in the Access to Information Act 2016.

The country has made big strides in securing the right to access of information and freedom of expression.

Kenya’s Open governance is anchored in the 2010 Constitution, which includes access to information obligations, that require the government to publish and publicize any important information affecting the country.

The government remains committed to promoting access to information, by ensuring that information is publicly available and transparent, and by providing support for the development of independent media outlets.

Technology has brought convenience to audiences; one can view, listen to and read what they want, where and when they want it.

Smart media houses have taken advantage of this enabling technology to build vast and loyal digital audiences.

There is a need for training to equip journalists with digital skills, including training on the use of information sourced from social media.

Media houses need to provide journalists with sufficient ICT equipment for work in both newsrooms and the field to ensure information currency and proper audience interactivity.

To this end, the government through my Ministry has demonstrated its commitment to upholding these principles by creating and facilitating and supporting a conducive environment where the government, media and citizens receive, impart and exchange information and ideas freely in the interest of national development.

The Ministry has received several proposals from the stakeholders including the Media Council of Kenya on the need to table in parliament, legislative proposals that respond to the current world trends on media development including legal and regulatory framework, plurality and diversity of media.

The Ministry is also looking forward to reading the contents of a report by the task force set up by my predecessor to review the Kenya Media Policy Guidelines developed in 2009.

The task force was an acknowledgement that the previous policy had lapsed. I wish to assure stakeholders that the Ministry will do its part in ensuring that proposals progress to the next stage.

This will however require collaboration and unity of purpose among all the stakeholders in canvasing this agenda when called upon to do so.

Both in principle and practice, the Media in Kenya is in its own space, while concurrently also being in everyone else’s space.

The Media regulates itself, while also regulating everybody.

It occupies that enviable space in which it was in 1787 when Edmond Burke said of the British Media that reported the British Parliament, “In the reporters' gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all."

Burke acknowledged the power of the Media, even as the Media itself rarely does today.

On a day such as this, we need to pause to ask ourselves, “Who is this being we refer to as ‘Power,’ when we say, ‘The Media must speak the truth to Power’?” For the Media is itself powerful.

The Media is especially very powerful in the Post-Truth Age that we live in today. Reliable information is increasingly becoming difficult to find.

Those who invented various social media platforms had every good intention to give our generation opportunities to interact and share knowledge and experience.

Unfortunately, these platforms increasingly distinguish themselves by selling untruths, fake news and even blatant intentional falsehoods.

The media should be ready to listen to criticism and take it positively whenever there are deviations from ethics and professionalism.

Freedom of expression should not extend to spreading hate speech, ethnic hatred and driving other divisive agendas.

There is a great national benefit if the media can forward matters of public interest that feed into the development agenda

We all know of one person or more who have been reported dead, in very elaborate but blatantly false narratives.

Regrettably, mainstream media outlets have sometimes picked up cues from such narratives in social media and amplified them.

As self-regulating entities, mainstream Media must deal with the challenge of fake news.

But mainstream Media must also deal with other challenges of our times.

It is now common to drown objective facts under intentional appeals to emotion, personal preferences and sectional beliefs, as avenues of influencing and shaping public opinion.

As a government in a self-regulated Media environment, we lack both the appetite and intention to intervene in this digression from Media ethics. The Kenyan Media fraternity must deal with this challenge.

In attending to these challenges, and many others, it is useful to recognize that freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility.

It has often been said that my rights and freedoms end where someone else’s begins.

While World Press Freedom Day reminds us of Media freedom as the epitome of universal Liberty, it also reminds us of the burden of responsibility that goes with Liberty.

Liberty can never be a license to trample on other people’s rights and freedoms. Indeed Liberty can never be freedom from accountability.

Liberty is, rather, about freedom from oppressive authority. Those who are not regulated by external authorities need to be careful that they do not become alternative oppressive authorities.

The Kenyan Media belongs to this category of self-regulated entities. It is behoved to balance delicately between freedom and responsibility.

Away from all that, the sustainability of the Media must remain a matter of primary concern to all people of goodwill. Emerging challenges are leading to shrinkage in the industry.

We are witnessing diminished print runs in the print media, returns on investment on the one hand, and staff downsizing and retrenchment.

It is difficult to reconcile our increased training and production of high-level media professionals on the one hand and the diminishing employment opportunities on the other hand.

How do we get out of here? Joint conversations between the government and the Media, including Media owners, is of the essence.

Meanwhile, the government remains the biggest employer of journalists in the country.

To this extent, the government too has a foot in the Media, through the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and the Kenya News Agency.

In line with the Constitution and the Law, however, the government respects the latitude that its Media entities must enjoy, as participants in the freedom of the Media space.

We will continue upholding Media freedom. We will ensure that the legal and regulatory environment is favourable to this freedom and we will remain responsible duty-bearers.

At the same time, we will continue to expect our Media to exercise its freedom responsibly and to remain accountable to the citizens in the way Press freedom is enjoyed.

The writer is the Information, communications and digital economy Cabinet Secretary 

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