BY FRED MATIANG’I
The Reporters Without Borders published a report suggesting that press freedom in Kenya has dropped from position 72 last year to 90 this year, painting a particularly inaccurate impression that the country is unfriendly to media operations and retrogressing with regard to freedom of expression.
The report, which has been the subject of news items in sections of the media, particularly hits out at Parliament for alleged complicity in clogging press freedoms, accusing the Government of culpability on account of its response to the Westgate Mall terrorist attack last September.
On critical examination of the report, I have found it neither scientific nor credible. It is manifestly based on perception, and its authors are apparently trapped in the web of the country’s historical past, out of which we have since moved through institutional reforms that have radically transformed access to information and significantly enhanced unfettered journalistic operations.
The report’s supposed science betrays its subjectivity and suspect judgment. On its methodology, it admits that it draws conclusions based on “the number of journalists, media assistants and netizens who were jailed or killed in connection with their activities, the number of journalists abducted, the number that fled into exile, the number of physical attacks and arrests, and the number of media censored”. I wonder how many of these they counted in the case of Kenya.
One wonders how Kenya can be considered as having slipped back, without a single arrest, imprisonment of any journalist in the country, and with the highly consultative approach we have adopted in resolving contentious issues touching on the media.
It is also ironic that the country should be said to be heading in the wrong direction, even with the unprecedented steps we have marked regarding open and free interactions between the government and the media.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has himself demonstrated the importance of working with the media, giving more interviews to the media in the past one year than all of Kenya’s past three Presidents’ tenure put together.
The President has also hosted several media engagements, including inviting the Editors Guild of Kenya and the conventions hosted by the Media Council of Kenya. This is a clear demonstration of an open and transparent approach to media issues.
As a point of fact, freedom of the press is clearly protected in the Constitution of Kenya under Article 34, with clear guards against interference with the media by Government or any other institution. On this basis, the claim by the Reporters Without Boarders that Parliament is muzzling the press is therefore incorrect and out of touch with facts.
The Constitution, in fact, binds Kenya to various international and regional bodies, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, making it one of the most press-friendly constitutions in the world.
The report seems to have studiously overlooked the fact that Kenya is among countries reputed for providing a friendly environment for the operations of journalists drawn from across the globe, a reality corroborated by the various initiatives the Jubilee administration has effected to fast track.
Indeed, Kenya continues to be in the vanguard of promoting world press freedom and has particularly expressed concern over the recent jailing of Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt, among other affronts on the press. A number of regional correspondents are also based in Kenya, indicating Kenya’s true standing regarding press freedom.
In protecting the editorial independence of the press, the Constitution provides for the existence of the Media Council of Kenya to arbitrate in media issues. The role of the council is to promote professionalism among media practitioners. It is important to note that the Council is independent and its membership comprises of players from the media industry.
In view of the foregoing indicators, the report by Reporters Without Borders is a failed attempt to strain the truth. It is unfair on Kenya.
The pointers further call to question the accuracy of the data used and quality of interpretation methods, and should therefore be disregarded.
Instructively, its executive summary remarkably acknowledges that some of its yardsticks for press freedom “concentrate on issues that are hard to quantify such as the degree to which news providers censor themselves, government interference in editorial content, or the transparency of government decision-making”.
Why on earth, then should anyone pay serious attention to this report? I wish local media practioners and Kenyans in general were not unduly hoodwinked by such hackneyed and cliché-filled descriptions of our otherwise robustly free media environment.
(Dr Matiang’i is the Cabinet Secretary for Information Communication and Technology).