Media freedom under threat in Kenya Kwanza’s first year in office

A free, objective and skilled media is essential to any democratic society. Freedom of the media plays a crucial role in shaping an open society and expanding the civic space. Time and again, the apex courts around the world, including Kenya, have defended this freedom as the bedrock of democracy. However, media players in Kenya have continued to operate in a more challenging environment, ranging from verbal and physical attacks, harassments, arrests and destruction of their equipment in the first year of Kenya Kwanza’s administration.

Media attacks

As Kenya Kwanza marks one year anniversary in office, the media marks one year of suffocation and humiliation. The attacks began when President William Ruto’s win was sustained by the Supreme Court, sarcastically, he called out some media houses for not providing enough coverage or not covering his election campaigns at all. More importantly, the Deputy President, Rigathi Gachagua, came out guns blazing to NTV for producing and broadcasting a documentary relaying the broken promises given by Kenya Kwanza in their campaign manifesto and not fulfilled. 

Recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Trade and Investment, Moses Kuria, attacked the same media house in a foul, vulgar and insensitive language in two scenarios that brought about tensions in the media industry. Senior government officials continue to attack and undermine the independence of journalists’ and the journalism profession. This should not be the case as journalism is not a crime. Nevertheless, these attacks pose a threat not only to democracy but also to the fourth and last pillar of democracy.

Many are the times when journalists were directly targeted while covering protests and demonstrations. The protests turned out ugly as the government responded in excessive force to disperse the peaceful protests. Regrettably, the media was the victim as many journalists were teargassed, their equipment destroyed and others arrested. Recently, in a video that went viral in social media, the journalists are seen to be harassed and assaulted by police officers while covering the Langata cemetery protests.

The attack on the 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. Well-known Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif’s murder in the country in October 2022 has brought the issue of journalists’ safety to the forefront. Unsurprisingly, investigations into abuses against journalists’ rarely result in convictions.

While the media is vital to holding the government accountable, these attacks and threats reduce the nation’s commitment to media freedom. This is demonstrated by the 2023 World Press Freedom Index,where Kenya ranked 116th out of 180 countries regarding limited media freedom. The current ranking depicts a downwards trajectory on media freedom in Kenya as the index in 2022 ranked Kenya at 69 out of 180. It is particularly concerning since the decline of media freedom is a sign of and a factor in the disintegration of democratic institutions and principles.

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Hostile laws

Freedom of the media is enshrined in the Constitution under Article 34, but some laws regulating journalism in Kenya include many provisions that challenge media freedom’s basic principles. The 2018 Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act, for example, provides for sentences of up to 10 years in prison and a fine for dissemination of “fake news” liable to incite violence. Access to state held information is still very difficult despite the adoption of a law on the subject.  However, Kenya Kwanza should first focus on repealing these laws that bring about limitations to the freedom of the media. This will be a big step forward in promoting media freedom in the country.

Media is the only profession mentioned and protected in the Constitution. It goes without saying that it is at the centre of constitutionalism and democracy. Therefore, statements by Kenya Kwanza hegemons not only injure the spirit of Constitutionalism but also a core value of future democracy. Media freedoms feed into the broader development objective of empowering people. It can only be achieved through access to accurate, fair and unbiased information. However, challenges to media freedoms call for reforms in the media sector. Media freedom can rebound even in lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity.

As Kenya Kwanza’s administration proceeds its stay in power for the remaining four years, it should not only misuse the freedom of expression in attacking the media verbally but also not use the law enforcement agencies to physically assault the journalists’. Additionally, the government should not impose political pressure on media houses to fire and hire certain managers who will and/or will not kowtow to their demands. Majorly, let it provide approaches and conversations pertaining to reforming the media sector to resemble the developed democracies in the world.

Kithinji Nturibi is a law student at Mount Kenya University. [email protected]

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