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Rebecca Mutiso is the Accreditation and Compliance Manager at the Media Council of Kenya and a Solutions Journalism scholar.

Fifth Estate

Rebecca Mutiso: Why we must guard Press Freedom

The shrinking media space should be a cause of concern for all stakeholders and there is need for concerted effort to ensure that journalists remain free to hold power to account and are given access to information they need in pursuit of this goal.

As the World Press Freedom Day approached, one of the questions that lingered in my mind was what the day really meant to me.

The day holds significant meaning to every journalist, but its meaning takes a different expression depending on who you talk to.

The event is an opportunity to impress upon governments on the need to respect press freedom, ponder on issues of professional ethics in the industry and support journalists who are a target of repression. It is also a day to  remember those who have lost their lives in the line of duty, unearthing the truth in the darkest corners.

Press Freedom is becoming more restricted and this year’s World Press Freedom index, compiled by Reporters without Borders shows that journalism is blocked in more than 73 countries and partly restrained in 59 others. This essentially means press freedom is compromised in  7 out of 10 countries appraised.

Closer home, Kenya was ranked 102, a poor standing for a country with good legislation on freedom of speech, freedom of the media and access to information under Section 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution.

The shrinking media space should be a cause of concern for all stakeholders and there is need for concerted effort to ensure that journalists remain free to hold power to account and are given access to information they need in pursuit of this goal.

The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day Information as a Public Good accentuates the media’s expansive role in the society of countering misinformation and disinformation and its duty in promoting sustainable development.

In  an era where misinformation outpaces the truth, journalists must be in the forefront in providing verified information to the public.

One way journalists can do so is by ensuring they tell the “whole story”.  With many things going wrong in our society,  it is easy to focus our attention on the negative, after all we mirror our environment.  However, time is ripe for media in Kenya to re-examine its function in society, given the shrinking revenues trigged by the digital disruption and growing need to improve information literacy by ensuring the public appreciates the value of journalism as a public good.  

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The media cannot step into these shoes effectively if people are avoiding watching news. A 2020 study by Reuters  Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University showed that 22 per cent of people were actively avoiding news, largely because of the negative slant that affects their mood. Another study conducted last year by  Infotrak, a research organization, showed that 78 per cent of Kenyans find news stressful and alarming. It is notably that during this period, Covid-19 pandemic dominated news coverage. The trend of news avoidance has  been a concern for the media industry with a 2019 research by Reuters showing that 32 per cent of people were shunning the screen during news time because they are always bombarded by bad news.

If the media recognises that information should be for public good, then it  must reconsider what is essential journalism and infuse a solutions approach in coverage of stories.

In line with the social responsibility theory, journalists in Kenya owe it to the public to flip the narrative and  highlight replicable responses to challenges facing our communities, especially in times of crises when the public depends on them to convey accurate and up to date information.  Over 45 media outlets across the globe are already doing this, with impact on their bottom line and their engagement with the audience.

The solutions approach to reporting as espoused by the US-based Solutions Journalism Network in the US sees the role of the media as more than just reporting on what is wrong with the society. It places upon the journalist the duty of rigorously reporting on the responses to social challenge  and sees it as an opportunity for the media to heighten accountability by removing excuses and setting the benchmark for what the public should expect for those in power.

 As we continue to fight for freedom of the media , we should remember that for information to become a public good, journalists must bear the responsibility of re-balancing news and providing space to those challenging the status quo by responding to challenges facing our society to tell their story too.

The writer is the Accreditation and Compliance Manager at the Media Council of Kenya and a Solutions Journalism scholar.

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