Press freedom day another ‘call to action’ opportunity

Cameras on standby for a Council of Governors media briefing

Cameras on standby for a Council of Governors media briefing in 2021. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Today is World Press Freedom Day 2023, an occasion to rethink the place of press freedom in our democracy and the media as a catalyst for pluralism and diversity of voices.

An independent press is a gateway to political and socioeconomic progress. May 3 is, thus, a time to appraise the link between press freedom, freedom of expression and other key human rights and whether we are on target.

It is another ‘call to action’ moment for stakeholders to take stock of the industry’s journey in the past tumultuous year. 

Undeniably, last year was a mixed bag for an industry smarting from deep-down pressures such as unfriendly regimes, the digital revolution, diminishing revenues and the fake news phenomenon. 

Yes, this important day must be a stark reminder to all of us—at individual, governmental, regional or global levels—of the pressing need to consistently and fearlessly mobilise action in supporting the media in doing its work and by respecting every commitment to press freedom.

The more than 300 players from the government, private sector, media, audiences, civil society and partners marking the day with us have a chance to share data and information, reflect on the issues affecting press freedom, draw lessons, and develop action plans for the sector.

This year’s special 30th-anniversary celebration of World Press Freedom Day, themed “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other human rights”, must be a call to countries and their leaders to repurpose press freedom as the key to the enjoyment of all other human rights.

Today’s anniversary also coincides with the 30th centenary of the Vienna Conference and its Declaration and Programme of Action on Human Rights, and with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While progress has been made in the promotion and protection of human rights including freedom of expression, the latest status of press freedom and freedom of expression report by Unesco raises concerns that should worry every one of us who cares about the vibrancy of the media sector.

Sounded the alarm

Unesco has sounded the alarm on the worrying decline of press freedom levels around the world, confirming that 85 per cent of the world’s population experienced a decline. While Kenya’s position in the global World Press Freedom Rankings improved from 103 in 2021 to 69 in 2022, the country experienced the highest violations against media and journalists in 2022.

The Media Council of Kenya (MCK) documented 104 incidences which were the highest in the past five years. Nonetheless, Kenya has one of the most vibrant media industries in the region.

But operations of local media houses have not been without internal and external challenges such as digital disruption, dwindling revenues, lack of training opportunities, intimidation and physical attacks among others.

Last month, the brutality meted on journalists during opposition-led protests in the country proved the unending threats the media faces. We have seen senior government officials train their guns on media houses over alleged biases linked to how the 2022 elections were covered.

Admittedly, some of the threats facing journalists today have been measured with far-reaching consequences. Last week, we saw authorities in Kilifi County bar the media from covering the Shakahola cult deaths without justification.

As a country, we must push the limits. The industry needs the goodwill of every player. It is not about the lack of laws. Kenya is a signatory to international instruments on freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information which have been domesticated through Articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution. Other subsidiary laws include the Access to Information Act, 2016, the Media Council Act, 2013 and The Kenya Information and Communications Act, 1998.

Locally, our work is well cut out for us. We have to swiftly improve the operating environment to support media sustainability and the full implementation of the Access to Information Act, 2016. This will help us realise the Right of Access to Information and promote a culture of transparency, openness and accountability among public officials.

We equally must burn the midnight oil to put in place mechanisms to inform and enhance the safety and security of media practitioners through designing in-house policies to protect the safety of their personnel, including women journalists. It is not going to be an overnight affair.

As Unesco rightly puts it, “the international community faces multiple crises such as conflicts and violence, socioeconomic inequalities driving migration, environmental crises and challenges to health and wellbeing of people, while disinformation and misinformation online and offline proliferate with serious impact on the institutions underpinning democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”

It is exactly to counter these critical situations and threats that the world must unite and protect press freedom, safety of journalists and access to information take centre stage. Stakeholders should use this special day as an opportunity to put a strong focus on freedom of expression within the overall human rights agenda.

Mr Omwoyo is the chief executive officer, Media Council of Kenya (MCK). [email protected].