Focus on press freedom

[Swaziland] Media workers under pressure in Swaziland.
Media workers under pressure in Swaziland (IRIN)

For the first time, Kenya has not featured on a list of countries considered hostile to journalists, issued to coincide with World Press Freedom day last month. No journalist has been killed nor imprisoned over the past year.

But some media experts think these changes are superficially rooted in the recent political transformations in the country since last year's change of government. They see no legal backing for press freedom as such.

FREEDOM WITHOUT GUARANTEES

According to David Makali, director of the independent Nairobi-based Media Institute, the country's political transition, which ushered in the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government last December, has allowed the press to publish freely and has created an atmosphere which poses no direct threat to the physical safety of journalists.

However, an amendment to the media law last year - which introduced radical changes to the Books and Newspapers Act and the Films and Plays Act - could reverse these positive changes, although the new government has said it will seek to repeal the amendment.

"What we have is freedom without guarantees," said Makali. "There is a lot of good will coming from the government, but no real work on the ground to show that the government is serious about changing the oppressive laws."

The amendment, which was enacted just months before the general election, not only imposed exorbitant publishing fees which could handicap newspapers, but also handed down stiff penalties for those who violate the new rules.

Furthermore, publishers are also required to submit copies of articles to the government, before circulation to the public. Media houses warned that this would introduce bureaucratic delays which would hinder meeting strict deadlines.

The amendment was introduced ostensibly to curb the alternative media, or the "gutter press". But the mainstream media argue that the rules also affect them and urged the government to allow the media to regulate itself.

The international watchdog, Human Rights Watch, observed that "freedom of expression lost much ground" when local courts awarded a series of record damages to establishment figures who brought libel suits against the media over "unflattering" stories.

POLITICAL CONTEXT

The media in Kenya has come a long way and its history is best understood from the country's broader political context.

The industry, in particular radio and television, remained under state control from independence in 1963 up to the late 1990's. During that period, only one radio and television network, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, was allowed a nationwide reach under total state control.

And with the absence of a vibrant opposition, the independent media gradually assumed the role of political watchdog, scaling up the fight for greater democratic space and increasing documentation of human rights violations in the country.

It therefore followed that as one of the major proponents for political change in the country, the Kenyan media was subjected to political control and harassment. Several publications were blacklisted as subversive, and publishers were driven out of business by the routine destruction of their products.

RESPECT FOR PRESS FREEDOM

The smooth political transition which brought President Mwai Kibaki's NARC coalition to power, was not only a major victory for the opposition, but also for the media, which is currently basking in the NARC government's promises to respect fundamental freedoms.

Information Minister Raphael Tuju has already assured the media that his ministry will seek to repeal the "draconian" media laws of the previous government.

He said the press should be allowed to work in a free atmosphere without any undue interference, but warned that the media should be responsible.

"We are aware that some of these laws were meant to stifle the freedom of expression, but I assure you that the NARC government is committed to ensuring that the press is left to work in a free environment," Tuju said.

The issue of media licensing, however, remains controversial, as does the issue of how free and fair the media can be in a country where politics are marked by deep ethnic divisions.

Makali argues that although the new government has demonstrated a great deal of goodwill to expand the freedom of press, "we are still seeing old government habits". He claims broadcasting licences have been issued to "politically well-connected companies from behind the scenes".

"We don't see any coordinated or deliberate action to change things," he said.

The wave of liberalisation that swept other sectors in the country has not brought much expansion into the Kenyan media sector. Kenya still has only four English language dailies, and less than 30 monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly magazines or journals published locally.

Although new independent media groups have extended their range, they are still limited to urban areas and only the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation continues to enjoy a nationwide monopoly.

Ezekiel Mutua of the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) recently warned against the potential of NARC becoming autocratic, unless legal mechanisms were put in place to "bend the system towards justice, human rights and respect for constitutional freedoms".

COMPETING INTERESTS

Media observers are hopeful that laws providing guarantees for freedom of the press will be entrenched in the new constitution which is currently under discussion.

However, competing interests and lack of consensus within the media fraternity itself have diminished such a possibility, according to Makali.

"The failure by the media to send representatives to the crucial [constitutional] conference means that the fraternity will have to depend on the goodwill of delegates representing other sectors and members of parliament - the institution which is to blame for the current media-limiting laws," he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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