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Shrinking free space for press, a threat to its future

Yet another World Press Freedom Day has come and gone. It does appear for most journalists there are largely two highlights from the occasion: The diary value of the activities lined for the day and the honours to journalists in the evening.

In the case of the first highlight, it does appear the Kenyan press may have not zeroed in on one of the most important themes of the day and a fundamental cornerstone of press freedom. This year’s theme was ‘Access to information and fundamental freedoms—this is your right’.

May 3 came shortly after the parliament passed the Access to Information Bill. The route to having the law in place has been tedious. On this one case Kenya has lagged behind many countries even in Africa. A bill that should have had the support of the government from the word go, was generated and pushed by the civil society and was sponsored as a private member’s bill. Over the years, (precisely, about two decades), as it went through the legislation process it was frustrated at every turn, and too often it was never easy to say where, in the chain, it was being held at.

The first formal right to information legislation, that guarantees citizens the right to access any information held by the government, was enacted in Finland two-and-half centuries ago. It recognises that for citizens to participate actively in a society, they must be provided with the necessary information to enable informed contribution.

An observer would have hoped the media would celebrate the passing of the bill, seek to enlighten the public on the consequences of the law and how they could take advantage of it. Unfortunately, the press moved on with the simple reporting that the bill was now an Act of Parliament still awaiting presidential ascent. That the President could ignore it has been lost in the silence.

The second highlight for the media is the gala night where journalists in Kenya celebrate the profession’s very best. One would expect from the media a scrutiny of the awardees either to agree with the panel of judges and the process or to interrogate further with the intention of making it better. For example, why do so many good seasoned journalists fail to submit work for consideration for the awards? Instead, what one gets is a quick celebration of the winnings and a moving on.

At this year’s awards the chief guest, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, asked a question: What is the future of journalism? There are many players in the industry all who seem to affect the trade in one way or the other. Among the most important of these include the government, the advertising community, the regulators and journalism education schools, among others.

Each of the actors is moving towards one direction or the other. In some cases, some have suggested, it is a direction of extremism. Most of the speakers at the World Press Freedom Day were quick to point out that the freedom space, locally, is shrinking. A cartoonist, in one of the dailies, captured this by caricaturing a journalist being progressively tied until, in the last panel, he could hardly move. It is simplistic to point an accusing finger at the government.

The reality is that commercial interests, among others, are sometimes even more responsible for the shrinking free space for the press than the government. However, it is generally easier to point an accusing finger at the easy target, in this case, the government, rather than other equally guilty players such as media management and ownership as well as lack of appropriate intellectual capacity to take advantage of the free space.

The role of the press in society today is even more critical. This time next year, we will be counting days before the first ballot in the General Election is cast. What will the role of the media be in the elections? What is the role of the media in economic development, storing and preserving culture, national integration, environmental conservation, among others?

By simply looking at the media, one would have to echo the question of the CJ: What is the future of the Kenyan media? We may need a national summit of the most serious players in the field to interrogate this.
Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University

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