The Kenyan press is free

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BY BITANGE NDEMO

I read with dismay and surprise the editorial piece of the May 3 issue of a leading daily newspaper. The editorial or, ‘leader,’ as the editor’s opinion piece is known in media parlance was titled “Our media still under threat.” There is no doubt that the tone of this piece was designed to cast the Government in bad light.

Coming especially on the very auspicious occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, what is objectionable is that the editor(s) sought to use that emotive occasion to besmirch the Government’s image by introducing self-righteous and self-serving fallacies.

To all intents and purposes, the leading article is, in media tradition, the column in which the media house concerned takes a collective position on a matter of great national or world significance. May 3’s article was therefore the considered position of the media house in question about media freedom in Kenya. Why, then, did a media house of such repute decide to use evidently wrong premises to project a negative view of the Government’s record on Kenya’s media?

Of particular concern here was the following line: “…Kenya, for one, signed into law the Communications Act which allows the State to invade newsrooms.” The question is: When exactly did Kenya do such a thing? I ask because nothing could be farther from the truth. Let me set the record straight.

Section 88 of the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act, 2009, proved controversial because it was thought to run counter to the normative postulates of media freedom. It will be recalled, however, that, soon after the enactment, the President ordered Parliament to give another look at the contentious sections. Eventually, section 88 was expunged.

So, what is itching this media house? Isn’t it mischievous and inaccurate for such a newspaper to insist that the law licenses the Government to invade newsrooms – whereas it doesn’t? One can clearly see that this misinformation is aimed at hoodwinking the public into believing that nothing has changed since the Kenya Communications Amendment Act was enacted last year. It appears aimed at pitting Kenyans against their government.

Given that the piece of statute on which the media house is hanging so desperately to cast the Government in objectionable light is non-existent, such sabre-rattling editorial pontiffs must be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.   

Indeed, rather than stifle the free flow of information, the Government has gone out of its way to entrench access to official information, as evident in various pieces of legislation, significant among them the Media Act, 2007, and the Freedom of Information Bill which is just awaiting approval by the Cabinet. Yet the opinion piece seeks to lump Kenya together with states for which freedom of information is anathema.

Far from the characterization of Kenya as one of the countries where oppressive and intrusive laws are in place, the opposite is, in fact, the case and evidence abounds to show that.

Over and above, the coming very progressive and liberal Freedom of Information law will place Kenya among an enviably small number of countries embracing the principle of the right to information. A visitor to Kenya will clearly appreciate it as an environment in which the media thrive unfettered.

Kenya boasts an ever increasing number of media outlets, both print and electronic, that are quite critical of the Government, often stretching the fundamentals of media freedom to the limit. In another society, such hyper-critical broadcasts and articles would have been met with an official fiat – especially if the criticism of the Government had been based on premises as false as the one cited by the media house in question.

Indeed, if Kenya’s media were transplanted – lock, stock and barrel – to another country, many of the media outlets would already have been clamped down on and media practitioners would have found it quite difficult to operate. Against this background, therefore, one wonders what motivates certain private media houses to express such phobia against the Government!

It must be pointed out, too, that the media laws that we have today are in tandem with international law. Media regulation proceeds from the understanding that freedom must be enjoyed responsibly. In addition, the meteoric growth of information and communication technology has made it necessary to intensify the regulation regime.

To this end, supplementary legislation has been put together to implement the Communications Act. Now, we have a content regulatory body for the broadcast media, a body on which the private media are amply represented.

Some fallacious argument fronted by certain self-appointed prophets of media freedom in Kenya is that regulation of broadcast media should be left to the Media Council of Kenya. This line of thought misses the point that broadcast media are quite different from print media. For the former use airwaves – which are a national resource globally regulated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

On this score, media practitioners, particularly those owners who are business people, have often buried their heads in the sand where comparison with the regulation of broadcast media in countries like the US and Britain – where vetting of broadcast content is the practice. In any case, the Communications Act has a wider net, regulating as it does, the information and communications sector in its entirety.

Having embraced the spirit of consensus building around potentially emotive media issues, is it too much to ask custodians of Kenya’s private media to appreciate the fact that the Government is the port of last call – the final arbiter – on all matters of governance and social regulation?

(Dr Ndemo is the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication).

 

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