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Celebrating the media in a difficult political environment

Journalists in Eldoret town light candles in honour of journalist John Kituyi who was killed in 2015. (Photo: Peter Maiyo/Standard)

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. A day we should or, indeed, must celebrate journalism. Despite numerous challenges, journalism and the media have been at the forefront of defending society, public interest and serving the public good.

Journalists and the media have provided the information, the platform for debate, analysis and a forum for opinion-sharing and formation. These roles are critical in democracy.

In the past few days, we have seen how tirelessly journalists and the media worked to ensure Kenyans and others have sufficient information about political party nominations and primary elections.

Despite numerous and intense physical political campaigns, the media offered most of us outside the physical political spaces, the information necessary to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ candidates, their positions on various issues, their suitability for political office and the capacity of the parties to hold elections.

Even though various factors informed people’s decisions, the media played an important role prior to and during the voting. They will continue to do so until the August General Election.

The arguments above thus demonstrate how important the media is. This, however, has never been in doubt.

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The media provides critical services despite the complex interplay between various interests and agendas, and challenges that inform media coverage of political, social and economic issues.

Accordingly, we must perhaps pay more attention to media issues on Wednesday, May 3. The World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference.

State of press freedom

The day gives society, the media and other stakeholders an opportunity to celebrate journalism and its roles in society as well as the fundamental principles of press freedom.

According to UNESCO, the day is also meant to assess the state of press freedom in the world, defend the media from attacks and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The day might not be known or recognised much outside media circles, but all of us consume media of mass communication in one way or another, whether music, soap operas, current affairs, news and should in effect be interested in what affects it.

The theme for this year, according to UNESCO, is ‘Critical minds for critical times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’. This theme alone is telling given the fact that the media is suffering serious challenges because of numerous factors.

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Besides commercial challenges and the attendant struggle to operate and survive in a changing environment, there are serious threats facing journalists at the moment. In Africa, for instance, journalists are facing serious challenges that threaten not only press freedom and survival of the media, but also the freedom of expression, which should be cherished by all. More worrying are issues and actors that threaten the well-being and independence of journalists in particular and the media in general.

According to a concept note in preparation for the 2017 World Press Freedom Day, “original, critical, and well-researched journalism is perhaps needed more today than ever before” given the challenges the world is facing.

UNESCO, however, notes that “such journalism can thrive only in an environment that is enabling towards free, independent and pluralistic media. When these conditions are in place, the media have an enormous potential to advance peace, just and inclusive societies.”

The theme also borrows from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that recognise the role of freedom of expression and by extension the media in their realisation. The theme refers to SDG 16 which seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Despite this, however, a progress report on the SDGs by the United Nations’ Secretary General paints a worrying picture of the state and levels of access to justice, information and other important freedoms.

Specifically, the report notes that “many countries still face protracted armed conflict and violence, and far too many people struggle as a result of weak institutions and the lack of access to justice, information and other fundamental freedoms.”

It further states that although “a free press is closely linked to access to information and the protection of human rights, the trend in this regard is discouraging.” The number of journalists killed increased from 65 in 2010 to 114 in 2015, despite the fact that, by 2013, 90 States had adopted laws on freedom of and/or access to information.”

Sharing views and debates

What’s more, according to the 2016 UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, 827 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last decade. This includes, for example, two journalists — John Kituyi and Francis Nyaruri — who were killed on April 30 2015 and January 29 2009, respectively. Their deaths have never been fully investigated. Despite pressure from numerous quarters and actors, and promises from various authorities, little progress has been made and their killers are still at large.

The inability (or even unwillingness) to investigate their deaths and prosecute the perpetrators is disheartening to those to who cherish media freedom, freedom of expression, human rights and the rule of law.

In essence, although the freedoms of the press and expression are enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya, there are serious challenges facing the media and its performance, including its capacity to provide ‘truthful’ and accurate information, platform for sharing views and debates, and ability to hold the country’s leadership to account and promote democracy, the rule of law and constitutionalism.

These issues will be discussed at a convention organised by the Media Council of Kenya as part of the celebrations to mark the World Press Freedom Day.

It will also be an opportunity to celebrate the media and reflect on how to genuinely promote and defend media freedoms and survival as part of advancing a peaceful, just and inclusive society.

The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.

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