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Journalists at work in Kenya. /CFM-FILE.

Fifth Estate

Responsible use on freedom of expression spaces panacea to restrictions

Instantaneous live broadcasting of evens including on online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, radio and TV, which has gained traction while against the programme code for broadcasters, is presenting serious professional and legal challenges. The practice is pushing freedom of expression to the limits, and many times exposing members of the public to unintended content. 

Regulations allow a second delay in broadcasts, which many have failed to observe, while without regulations on online broadcasts, a few events are live-streamed with very regard to content regulations and related gate-keeping traditions. It’s interesting and provides huge opportunities to expand information sources for the public, cuts down on advertising costs for many institutions and campaigns, but when done without care and due diligence, challenges are bound to happen.

While the practice has allowed content producers and news sources to be in direct control of their content, it has created a problem for professional media. In most cases, the public reacts to such and when laws are made, they target the wrong media.

Freedom of expression comes with responsibility and journalists and by extension, content producers and media houses must be strict on not only choosing what to allow on-air, but more on the safety of their staff and preparations with their hosts before airing the programmes.

Several things are happening on online media platforms in the form of sharing information, breaking news and expanding the boundaries of information exchange. Kenya, just like other countries is feeling the effects of new technology in their work. The rise of online media usage has not been without our perennial problem- tribalism, insults, and lack of any known mannerisms and for that, use of online media platforms has attracted new laws and administrative codes aimed at regulating online journalism.

While online news production and dissemination has enormous opportunities in educating Kenyans and cementing peaceful co-existence, if not well checked has a negative impact. Indeed, while several online platforms have been sources of serious positive information, a number have not been.

The Code of ethics for the practice of journalism cautions the media against intruding and making inquiries into an individual’s private life without the person’s consent unless public interest is involved. The same article states that public interest should be legitimate, by extension meaning well defended and not mere curiosity.

However, other content users and media practitioners including talk show hosts, media managers and brand handlers or independent content producers are not bound by the journalism code but by and large the limitations on freedom of expression in the Constitution. The concern is how many people know these limitations? This calls for enhanced media and digital literacy skills scaling up that should probably be introduced in both learning institutions and workplaces. We should not allow control of the online and related freedom of expression spaces by the authorities, but this can only happen when there is the responsible use of these platforms.

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Several media enterprises in Kenya have developed social media and blogging policies for journalists attached to them to ensure while they go online, and the associated ambiguities, of their private lives and their public life, they still observe professionalism even within their private space. Journalism is a public life and requires of its professional members to maintain decorum in their dealings. The media companies are explicit that these guidelines will help their journalists in the use of online platforms without undermining their professionalism and compromising the company’s credibility.

The situation is made extremely dangerous with the current media landscape that seems overwhelmed by propaganda and fake content, a largely partisan media, tribal inclined journalists, and politically intoxicated media pundits. Our freedom of expression space is filled with hatred half-truths, single sources stories, unverified claims, and hot air. Once online, people get excited and air things that are out of the world.

Much more resources need to be invested in media and digital information literacy so that media platforms are used as marketplace of factual ideas, and not for empty rhetoric, sources of harmful content and spreading of stereotypes that have been overtaken by events. Organizations including political parties, think tanks and institutions that participate in information sharing must invest in professionalizing their information/content flow, ensure responsible use on media platforms and guarding the public against harmful and dangerous content.

The author is the Deputy CEO at the Media Council of Kenya

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