DINNAH ONDARI: Why Kenya's political goodwill is key to boosting press freedom

Latest rankings positioned Kenya at 102 out of 180 countries ranked.

In Summary
  • When ranking countries, RSF relies on five indicators; Political, sociocultural, economic, security and legal framework.
  • “Respect for press freedom in Kenya is highly dependent on the political and economic context.,” the report notes
Journalists at work.
Journalists at work.
Image: FILE

The importance of a good record about press freedom can never overstated.

The recent rank by Reporters Without Borders has positioned Kenya at 102 out of 180 countries ranked.

Though the new ranking shows a significant improvement from 2023 when Kenya was ranked position 116, there is an urgent need for the country to bounce back to its former impressive record.

Kenya was ranked at position 69 in 2022, a somewhat impressive record compared to the last two years.

When ranking countries, RSF relies on five indicators; Political, sociocultural, economic, security and legal framework.

“Respect for press freedom in Kenya is highly dependent on the political and economic context,” the report notes

When analyzing the report, one can note that the killing of a Pakistani journalist in October 2022 marked a turning point for press freedom trends in Kenya.

There has been a debate in the country on whether Kenya is to blame for the murder of a foreigner on its soil.

The answer to this question depends on whether Kenyan authorities who have been in charge of the investigations into the murder have been cooperative and whether there has been progress in the investigations. This has not been demonstrated.

In October 2023 , a year after the killing of Arshad Sharif, RSF in its report observed that both the Kenya and Pakistan authorities were uncooperative in the investigations:

“ After investigating the circumstances of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in Kenya one year ago, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused the authorities in both countries of duplicity. With opaque or misleading investigations, a lack of cooperation and failure to arrest suspects, everyone is trying to protect their interests at the expense of the truth about Sharif’s death and justice for his family.”

To an observer, Sharif’s assassination highlighted the dangers that media personnel face in this country. 

This is even though no Kenyan journalist has been killed in the line of duty or jailed in recent years.

However, looking at the statistics internally, dozens of cases reported to the police by journalists remain uninvestigated, ultimately emboldening perpetrators of press freedom violations.

Kenya’s elections in 2022 and the subsequent demonstrations have also played a big part in dimming the country’s records when it comes to press freedom rankings

If the 2022 general election where media outlets and individual staff were profiled and threatened and others faced all forms of harassment both online and offline, was a dark period for the Kenyan media in terms of freedom, the post-election period came with even bigger challenges.

The media was caught up in the show of might between the opposition and the sitting government during prolonged demonstrations.

By March 2023, at least 25 journalists had been victims of arrests, physical assault and other forms of harassment as they covered the activities of political actors in the conflict.

Looking at media ownership, the report concludes that much of the media is owned by political leaders or people close to the government.

It concludes that there has been influence in the appointment of media managers and editors:

“This strong governmental presence leads to self-censorship, “ the report concludes. 

When it was promulgated in 2010, The Kenyan Constitution was hailed as one of the most progressive in the region especially because of its Articles 33, 34 and 35 on freedom of expression, freedom of the media and the right to access to information respectively.

However, celebrations among media stakeholders over the new law may have been short-lived if the challenges in the implementation of these provisions are anything to go by.

“Freedom of the press is enshrined in the 2010 Constitution, but the twenty or so Acts and laws regulating journalism in Kenya include many provisions that challenge press freedom’s basic principles. The 2018 Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, for example, provides for sentences of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 40,000 euros for the dissemination of “fake news” likely to incite violence. Access to public information is still very difficult despite the adoption of a law on the subject,” the report notes.

The challenges in the foregoing coupled with the post-Covid -19 economic crisis that saw over 300 journalists lose their jobs and the ineffective mitigation efforts by actors have complicated matters for the media

Further, the report points out that ethnicity is linked to political loyalties which  plays a big role in Kenyan journalism:

“ Journalists are sometimes promoted – or sidelined – in news organizations on the basis of their ethnicity,” The report notes.

The findings and subsequent conclusions made by RSF in 2024 should serve as a point of reflection for all stakeholders and actors in the media space to serve as a platform for transformation action.

This will not only return Kenya to its former position at the top of press freedom ranks but also ensure that what is perceived as freedom for the Kenyan media outside Kenya can be felt and enjoyed by Kenyan journalists themselves.

Dinnah Ondari is the Manager, Press Freedom, Safety and Advocacy at Media Council of Kenya. @dinahondari

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