Debate is currently going on about the performance of the media in Kenya during the August 8 General Election.
Since the election process is not complete and it might be too soon to make the judgment, it suffices to make preliminary comments.
While this is not a statement to the effect that the media is a perfect institution, I hasten to state that it’s wrong to make a judgment on the same appreciating the environment: Legal, social, physical, economic and administrative structures in the country.
Without going into details for the merits and otherwise of the debate, I would just want to revisit the role of the media in the electoral process globally.
Those who are judging the media merely on the account that they did not release the election results after the tallying as being a failure are not fair – there are legal and logistical challenges that made this impossible, and not professional inability.
A large number of media practitioners and journalists on the other hand have held the view that we should look at the underlying reasons why some media and journalists behaved badly, including level of training and ethics, media ownership configuration and external influences among other factors.
The media operates in an environment that has serious challenges and each story published/aired or individual journalist behaviour must be dealt with on a case basis.
We should stop this wholesale condemnation of the media.
The media has a role to play in articulating the election agenda, including voter education, political party manifestos, candidate profiles and campaign issues thus setting the agenda of the election process – which is a good governance and social responsibility function of the media.
The media has a responsibility in civic education, as a watchdog, and assisting in citizen participation and engagement in the electoral process.
It provides a forum for information exchange and citizen evaluation of the political players. Given the space and airtime the media gave to political players during the campaigns, would it be fair to say the media failed? No.
Relating to the role of the media in electoral processes, the European Court of Human Rights thus notes: “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says “Freedom of the press is essential for the full and effective exercise of freedom of expression and an indispensable instrument for the functioning of representative democracy, through which individuals exercise their right to receive, impart and seek information.”
The European Court of Human Rights says it is the duty of the media to impart information and ideas in all areas of public interest: … it is nevertheless incumbent on it to impart information and ideas of public interest.
Not only does the press have the task of imparting such information and ideas, the public also has a right to receive them.
In the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Union notes “the key role of the media and other means of communication in ensuring full respect for freedom of expression, in promoting the free flow of information and ideas, in assisting people to make informed decisions and in facilitating and strengthening democracy”.
In her several reports to the African Commission, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression has severally held that “The relationship between freedom of expression, access to information and elections need not be overemphasised. Free, fair and credible elections are not possible without free flow of information, free and diverse media and plurality of views.”
A key lesson learnt over the years is that improving media performance will not necessarily be achieved through controlling, disciplining, or any punitive action against the journalists, but a combination of interventions by all stakeholders including the government, media owners, editors, media managers, journalists, advertisers and Kenyans at large.
Media in Kenya is now concentrated in the hands of a few players who have accumulated political and economic power of unimaginable proportion. They can promote specific political agenda and use their huge profits and media outlets for political endeavours. Adverts today sell political candidates to voters in a way that blurs the line between politics and commercial interests.
Protection and safety is a key concern for journalists, where they are a target of attack and harassment by political activists and goons which affects their access to information.
The writer works at the Media Council of Kenya as Programmes Manager