Omwoyo: While Challenges Abound, Media Freedom is on Course in Kenya
NAIROBI, May 3rd 2018
Today, May 3rd 2018, the world will be gathers in Accra, Ghana – and for the first time in Africa – to mark World Press Freedom Day and the 27th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration the premise upon which the Day is based. The Declaration, which was compiled by a group of African newspaper journalists during a conference organized by UNESCO in the Namibian capital, had three central components: media freedom, pluralism and independence.
Media freedom refers to whether the policy and legal environment in which the media is operating in a given country, is enabling or restrictive. Media pluralism refers to whether there is a multiplicity of media voices and outlets reflecting broad economic ownership and control, as opposed to concentration and censorship. Media independence refers to the autonomy of media professionals from political, commercial or other interests in editorial decisions and coverage. As we mark this important Day this year, how do we fair as a country?
In terms of media freedom, the legal environment for media to operate in Kenya, is anchored in the Constitution under Articles 34, 35 and 36. These are further expressed in other legislation such as the media-specific, Media Council of Kenya Act of 2013 and other supportive and facilitative laws such as the Kenya Information & Communication Act (2013) and Freedom of Information Act (2016). However, Kenya is yet to develop and implement a national media policy, to guide and grow the sector and more so the relationship between the media, the government and the citizenry.
Kenya has nearly 179 radio stations, 60 television station and over 60 print publications, reflecting a multiplicity of voices, or does it? The recently released Strengthening Kenyan Media report by the social impact firm, Reboot and philanthropic investment firm, Omidyar Network, showed that the Kenyan media is controlled by only 6 main players – mainly influential families. Does this truly represent media pluralism and what are its effects on democracy and national governance?
On 30th January, 2018, the Ministry of Interior, directed the Communications Authority to switch off transmission by three leading TV stations over their live coverage of the controversial “swearing-in” ceremony of the “People’s President” at Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Could this “shutdown” been attributed to the independence of media in its editorial decision-making by not being swayed by political and/or commercial interests?
Additionally, the formation of the Government Advertising Agency (GAA), as the sole media buying agency for the entire public sector, was interpreted by media observers, as an affront to media independence by the Government. Given that the public sector comprising of ministries, departments, agencies including universities and public enterprises, is one of the largest spenders on advertising, could the GAA being an opportunity for the government to direct or at the very least strongly influence editorial content through commercial inducement?
Meanwhile, Kenya’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index continues to fall, slipping from 95 in 2017 to 96 in the latest rankings released by Reporters without Borders (RSF) in April 2018. This has been attributed to the routine attacks, intimidation and threats that journalists received during the year from security forces, politicians and their supporters due to their coverage related to the 2017 General Elections. These developments do not augur well for media freedom and especially for the ability of media practitioners to perform their duties.
However, the threats to media freedom, pluralism and independence are also internal. The elections brought to the fore the effects of ethnicity in newsrooms. Indeed, in some instances, the editorial biases based on the ethnic composition of the newsroom or ownership of the media houses were obvious.
Furthermore, the harsh economic environment and declining media revenues have resulted in a change in the way newsrooms operate relying more on freelance journalists and correspondents who are paid less that staff journalists to produce stories. This according to some, has had a negative effect on the quality of stories because of the freelancers and correspondents may not give sufficient time to stories because of the “pay-per-article” model as opposed to staff journalists whose remuneration is largely time based.
In fact, it is no wonder that a recent study found that 80% of journalists in Kenya are employed as freelancers – it makes economic sense. A separate study published in 2015, by media scholar, Kioko Ireri showed that 83% of journalists are satisfied with their current jobs, but 61.8% were not happy with their monthly incomes, which according to the study stands at between USD 375.00 and USD 625.00 on average.
The challenges facing women media practitioners, such as underrepresentation in decision-making at all levels, discriminatory hiring practices, sexual harassment and recently online and even physical attacks, continue to bedevil the sector. One of our studies in 2015, found that only 7% of new stories out of 912 news articles, were written by women. There is need for a more concerted effort to mainstream gender in how media enterprises are run and news content generated.
The fifth internal challenge facing the media lies in training. While journalism and communications courses and institutions continue to multiply in number, editors continue to lament the lack of practical skills in newly minted graduates. While actors in the sector such as the Media Council, civil society groups and media associations have worked hard to fill in those gaps, concerns remain on whether the skills learned are being applied and to what effect, especially in light of the flaring up of fake news stories at an alarming rate.
The Media Council of Kenya under its soon to be launched 5-Year strategic plan will be working to address these challenges in the media. Drawing from best-practices across the globe, regionally and locally, we remain confident that our efforts working together with all media stakeholders will bear fruit. Specifically, we will work to strengthen the media policy and legal environment so as to enhance media freedom; improve our mediation and dispute resolution capacity under the Media Complaints Commission and improve media standards and training through the launch of the training curriculum for colleges and universities. Finally, we will work on our capacity to better serve our primary stakeholders: the media, citizens and the government.
David Omwoyo Omwoyo, CEO of the Media Council of Kenya