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Mutua threat to ban violent media content untenable

Last week, the Kenya Film Classification Board chief executive Ezekiel Mutua was reported to be considering banning broadcast of gory images from street protests. Indeed, last week was the worst in terms of images that come from the streets since the post-election violence in 2008. Some of the images came through the mainstream media, but the majority were transmitted through the social media platform.

The events were a gruesome reminder of some of our dark days. Smoke filled skies from Kisumu through Nairobi to Mombasa, death on the streets, running battles almost across the country and, of course, arrests.

The international media was quick to pick it up. On such papers as London’s Guardian, there were disturbing photos of children either running scared or being looked down by menacing cops. After the infamous Langata Road Primary School protest, where children were shown covered with teargas fumes, one would have hoped that we do not see the images of children running away from violence, again.

Perhaps, it is this that informs Mutua’s warning that media houses could face a ban from airing violent news items. To do this, the board would have to classify news either at the level of individual news items or as a wholesome. Its mandate includes, among others, classification of content that is aired on TV and movie theatres.

Primarily, the role of the board is to “regulate the creation, broadcasting, possession, distribution and exhibition of films; license and issue certificate to distributors and exhibitors of films”.

However, under function number seven, the board monitors broadcast content for compliance with the law regarding implementation of watershed period principles. The watershed principles implied in its mandate are spelt out in the Broadcast Code that was issued by the Communication Authority of Kenya.

From a strict reading of the law, the job of KFCB ends with their classifying content. Other agencies, such as CA, step in after that to deal with stations that violate the classification. This is outlined in the Broadcast Code for it is CA that has the instruments with which to mete punishment to broadcasters who violate the code.

However, the code does not envisage news items being classified within the context of watershed hours. News coverage falls under the role and functions of the media which include providing information to the audience, surveillance of the environment and the watchdog functions.

It is a cardinal principle in the newsroom that journalists jealously guard their independence. To execute their functions, journalists must be given space to independently make judgement with regard to what items are newsworthy. The society of journalists is, of course, cognizant of the need for common principles that should guide the process. It is this need that informed the development of a code of ethics as a point of reference in the reporting of news. The code of conduct for journalists in Kenya is ingrained in the Media Act (Second Schedule).

Media regulation takes different forms in different countries. There are broadly three types of regulation—self-regulation, statutory regulation and hybrid (a mix of the first two). Initially, Kenya toyed with self-regulation but seems to have settled on the hybrid with the monitoring provided by the State-funded Media Council of Kenya. What then would Mutua’s board banning of violent content on media mean?

In the world of digital broadcast and broadband, the average citizen has myriad sources of news. And by the way people have always found a way of accessing news so banning news itself may not be sufficient.

If Mutua’s concern was primarily with these gory images then social media needs most of our attention, because it is hardly regulated.

There is, however, a bigger danger. Suppose we were able to temper with news—deciding for the professionals in the newsroom what they can and what they cannot broadcast—then we run into the risk of having a skeptical audience that would not believe the local media. That is a danger zone.

Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University

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