The media shutdown has elicited passionate debates on the state of the media freedom in Kenya. True to form, comments on social media reveal deep-rooted political and ethnic misinformed perspectives on the matter.
Pro-government commentators support the shutdown citing the shortcomings of the press as justification and they are overly critical of NTV, KTN and Citizen TV, accusing them of anti-government bias and allegedly working with the Opposition to undermine the government and the ruling party.
Anti-government and pro-Opposition commentators cite the government’s impunity and see a political hand in the matter, dismissing all kinds of accusations against the media. And there are those feigning indifference and swaying between support and condemnation. The most eminent comment being; “They fed the ogre, now the ogre is devouring them”.
The problem with this debate is that majority miss the point which is “press freedom”. Freedom of the press denotes an atmosphere where media professionals can publish facts without any fear or any threat. For this group of people, there is a set of professional journalistic codes and ethics to adhere to but the fundamental question is often whether the publication is factual.
Professional training and established codes outside the confines of any group of interest, private or national, instinctively provide answers to challenging environments not limited by space and time. In the face of intimidation, undue influence and sabotage, my media law and ethics professor, Joe Kadhi, a media guru who has tutored and inspired many in the field often said “Publish and be damned”. This is the code that we live by.
However, this does not mean that press freedom is absolute. The media has a responsibility to inform, educate and entertain in a constructive and unbiased manner in the public interest. The press has to know its responsibilities. It should conform to national values, national objectives as expressed by the people and not just the government, political class, businesses or any other power groups.
The reality is that our press is majorly private owned and profit-driven and this sometimes comes in the way of public interest especially when economic interests are at stake. Citizens should demand accountability from the press, just as they do from the government. Press freedom has sometimes been abused through distortion of facts, blackmail, character assassination and cheap sensationalism.
There is no doubt that the press has the power to help or harm. The demerits of a free press far outweigh the merits of a gagged press. Jawaharlal Nehru, nationalist and the first prime minister of India stated that “I would rather have a free press, with all the dangers that may result from a wrong use of that freedom, than a strangulated press”. Governments and politicians across the entire globe, in both democracies and autocracies have been at loggerheads with the press.
State power and individual wealth breeds impunity in unequal societies and it is the responsibility of the media to act fearlessly and be the pillar of strength for the poor and weak in society. Gagging the press is usually associated with declining democratic freedoms and often accompanied by injustices. It is impossible to fight corruption, impunity, injustices and even poverty without the free flow of information.
Most states would like to control and manipulate the press in favour of incumbent governments. Government-controlled media are often manipulative and less responsive to citizen needs and hence the low credibility in State-owned media globally. It is therefore important for citizens to understand that it is in their own interest to stand by the press, despite their shortcomings and demand accountability and responsibility, rather than have a press that plays to the tune of politicians in and out of government.
Shutting down media stations without due process is neither in the public interest nor in the government’s interest. Self-restraint and respect for the constitution is necessary to facilitate the growth of a responsible press and a more democratic society. Condemnation and support based on political, ethnic and ideological perspectives doesn’t help either.
Media survival depends on the State that governs and regulates them, the firms that advertise through them and the audiences they serve. Their ultimate task is to balance these different interests upon which their survival depends. It is never an easy task and therefore the press often relies on accepted principles, values and legal provisions to guide their work. Their performance should therefore be judged on these provisions.
The freedom of the press should not be solely guaranteed by provisions of the law, but together with the culture of accepted norms of society in an objective manner. Objectivity is based on the interests of all the parties involved and is guided by fundamental principles in the profession. Edward Herman defined “Objectivity” as presenting both sides of the story, digging out facts without political or ideological constraints and presenting those fairly and impartially. Newsworthiness must be on the basis of consistently applied news values, unaffected by a political agenda, ideological leaning and profitability considerations.
There are several ways to media accountability that function effectively and should be enhanced and facilitated. The media should re-look its self-regulatory mechanisms to ensure that it is effective and responsive to the concerns of its stakeholders through agreed on ethical codes, the media council, and letters to the editor columns among others.
Where there are competing ideas and ideologies and elusive facts, the marketplace of ideas should be the guiding principle. The principle holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in a free and transparent public discourse where facts are separated from fiction based on the merits and demerits, superiority and inferiority as well as acceptance among the population.
And just as free markets operate, the market place of ideas is governed by laws against defamation, libel and slander and litigation is a more democratic way to address media concerns.
(The writer is a PhD student of International politics and media)