• To fully enjoy the fundamental freedoms, everyone, including Kenyans, must appreciate and promote media freedoms.
• We must protect the media as they are the fourth and last pillar of democracy.
One of the foundations of a democratic and an open society is free and independent media.
Time and again media, has played a critical role in shaping key conversations and expanding civic space. However media institutions and actors continue to operate in a challenging environment with attacks from within and without the government.
These attacks threaten the progress made in expanding media space and injure the spirit of Article 34 of the Constitution that seeks to protect and promote the freedom and independence of media.
The last few weeks have not been easy for media actors in Kenya. It has had to endure political rhetoric by government and opposition leaders. Many are the times when the presidency has expressed its dissatisfaction with the media and gone ahead to attack it.
Recently, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua claimed that the media was being financed by the “milk cartel” (allegedly referring to former President Uhuru Kenyatta) to write negatively about the government.
On his election, President William Ruto sarcastically called out some media actors that were supposedly either not giving his campaign positive coverage and/or not giving him coverage at all.
The opposition, too, has come out to claim that certain media houses are biased in their coverage. For instance, Azimio leader Raila Odinga, who is perceived to be the de facto opposition leader, called for the boycott of the Star newspaper, accusing it of being biased against Azimio. He later on called off the boycott and stated that he would file a complaint with the Media Council of Kenya.
A few days after Raila’s call for boycott of the Star, the Communication Authority of Kenya released a communique stating that the authority had established that six television stations had covered the Azimio protests in a manner that violated the Programming Code.
The statement, which was vague as it failed to clearly indicated the specific sections of the law that were violated, went ahead to threaten media houses with sanctions that included revocation of broadcast licenses and broadcasting frequencies.
Fortunately through the intervention of Katiba Institute, the High Court suspended the decision leaving the commission with egg on the face.
The win in court came in at the right time as more protests were being organised and media actors prepared to do their job — cover the demos and inform their audiences.
However, these week’s Monday protests turned out ugly for journalists who were covering protests. Some were arrested by police, others physically assaulted by cops and criminals, and their equipment and cars destroyed.
These scenarios put media freedom and safety, as well as the security of journalists at risk. The attack by the government, opposition and criminals puts independent journalism between a hard place and a rock.
Media plays a critical role in the enjoyment of the other fundamental rights and freedoms. As the only profession mentioned and protected in the Constitution, it goes without saying that it is at the centre of constitutionalism and democracy.
The right to access information and expression, which are facilitative to other rights, are often enjoyed through the media. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to enjoy all other freedoms and rights, if and when we curtail media freedoms.
The attack on media, which in many circumstances is meant to intimidate journalists from acting impartially in the course of their work, also puts their lives in danger. Journalists are now finding themselves at a risk not only from criminal elements during the protests but also from the law enforcement officers and supporters of different politicians.
Statements by political leaders attacking certain media houses can also lead to targeting of journalists, putting their lives at risk. This should not be the case as journalism is not a crime.
To fully enjoy the fundamental freedoms, everyone, including Kenyans, must appreciate and promote media freedoms. We must protect the media as they are the fourth and last pillar of democracy.
Muthuri Kathure is the Senior Program Officer (Civic Space) at Article 19 Eastern Africa.