Why politicians cannot win their war against freedom of the media

Trade CS Moses Kuria

The leaders of the current verbal attacks on the media are Trade and Investment Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The leaders of the current verbal attacks on the media are Trade and Investment Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

They accuse the media, in particular the Nation Media Group, of biased reporting. But while they may have valid grievances, vilifying NMG is not the answer.

Their attacks, in fact, appear to be attempts at curtailing media freedom—rather than complaining about the way NMG reports the news.

While it is okay to complain about the conduct of NMG journalists, it is not to insult or abuse them. In fact, it is futile to do so. It may even become counter-productive. Tuesday’s Daily Nation two-page story headlined “Edible oil exposé: Media players call out Kuria over attack on NMG” testifies to this.

In any case, in this day and age, any politician trying to curtail media freedom is fighting a losing battle. Freedom of the media—let us not forget—is entrenched in the Constitution.

The people of Kenya won that freedom nearly 13 years ago when they voted in a referendum for a new constitution. The right of the media to operate freely and without interference from the government is entrenched in the Constitution. It is well-nigh impossible to reverse the hard-fought gains.

The government or politicians may stop government advertising in the media that they are unhappy about. Or they may even attempt to incite public opinion against the media. This appears to have been the case with some of the utterances by Mr Kuria and Mr Gachagua. But such antics are not likely to succeed. The public seems to support the way NMG goes about bringing them investigative stories, unearthing scandals and wrongdoing. It does not seem to matter to the public what shortcomings the stories may have.

The 2010 Constitution has clauses that entrench freedom of the media and protect the media from attempts at curtailing their freedom. Short of an [unlikely] constitutional amendment, it is impossible to roll back media freedom. Both Mr Kuria and Mr Gachagua must be aware of this.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is at the heart of media freedom. The Constitution guarantees every person the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas. The freedom and independence of the media is also guaranteed. However, it does not extend to such things as propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech or vilification of others.

The State is prohibited from exercising control over or interfering with any person engaged in the media or dissemination of information. Nor can it penalise any person for any opinion, view or content of the media.

Any person has the freedom to set up a television or radio station. This is subject only to licensing procedures that are necessary to regulate airwaves and other forms of signal distribution. The broadcasting stations are independent of control by the government. Even the State-owned KBC is free to determine independently the editorial content of its broadcasts. 

The Constitution also requires the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), which regulates the media in the country, to be independent of control by the government. 

Parliament is also prohibited from barring the media from covering its proceedings—the exception being when the Speaker determines there are justifiable reasons for excluding the media. Similarly, a county assembly may not exclude the media from any sitting—again, unless if the Speaker determines that there are justifiable reasons for it.

Media freedom is very deeply entrenched in the Constitution. And the power of the media to influence what people know and think is obvious. It would, therefore, be more helpful for Mr Kuria and Mr Gachagua to build bridges to the media, not go on the warpath.

The Office of the Deputy President and the government ministries have communication officers who once held senior positions in the media. What does Mr Kuria or Mr Gachagua use them for? They should deploy them to mend fences with the media, not just to send threatening messages to editors when they are unhappy with certain stories.

There is a true symbiotic relationship between the public officers-cum-politicians and the media. The purpose of the relationship is not to hush up scandals or wrongdoing; it is to facilitate the flow of information between them. Such a relationship would be mutually beneficial.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264