Protecting press freedom amid rising attacks and impunity

Participants follow through the proceedings during the commemoration of International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, on November 2. PHOTO/MCK.

By Velmah Achieng

  • Statistically, about 109 journalists have faced incidences of violence and attacks in Kenya between January and November 2023.
  • International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists is commemorated every November 2.
  • Low pay and long working hours in the media houses lead to mental health issues among journalists.

Journalists worldwide have been applauded for magically giving voice to the voiceless through the never-ending stories of everyday occurrences that they tell, thus imparting knowledge and creating awareness to the information-thirsty members of the public.

Away from the regular routine of informing, educating and entertaining their audience, they usually face life-threatening severe challenges in the line of duty when sourcing information.

The Media Council of Kenya, in collaboration with the Katiba Institute, convened a lesson-filled event at Kisumu to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

Held on November 2 every year, this day is observed globally by the United Nations. 

It is celebrated to draw attention to the low global conviction rate of crimes, promote conditions that allow journalism to fulfil its public function, and, most importantly, free from media interference and retaliation, maintaining its operability without fear.

Attended by elite members of the fourth estate and moderated by Victor Bwire, Deputy CEO MCK, this year’s event was themed Protecting press freedom in the face of rising attacks and impunity in Kenya.

Panelists shared their deliberations on how to safeguard journalists and preserve press freedom in the face of public-promoted violence, combat attacks on journalists, and uphold the truth in the face of disinformation.

Attacks and assaults

Statistically, about 109 journalists have faced incidences of violence and attacks in Kenya between January and November 2023, most of which led to injury, stress and even loss of life.

Panelists posing for a group photo. PHOTO/MCK.

The latest incidences include 25 cases of journalists recorded during the anti-government demonstrations.

Bwire alluded to the fact that while there are laws that protect journalists, there is a massive increase in the attacks against them, most of which are done by public members, especially from the political class, who incite and weaponize people to attack media houses they believe are against them.

“People take the law into their own hands since they have been mobilized. Thugs and gangs also attack journalists based on their stories and also on the quest to get their working equipment which are expensive. This leads to threats against journalists in the sense of self-censorship,” said Mr. Bwire.

He also noted that the low pay and long working hours in the media houses lead to mental health issues among journalists. 

“Failing to pay journalists well and on time is the highest impunity. This affects their productivity thus leading to redundancy and job loss,” assured Mr. Bwire.

While deliberating on the same, Kennedy Mureithi, Chairperson of the Political Journalists Association of Kenya, said that the attacks, both physical and verbal, are a never-ending problem that journalists will have to deal with daily in their line of duty. 

“The attackers believe that it is their right to attack due to the fear of being exposed by the stories you do. Condemn verbal attacks but also ensure you make something better out of it,” said Mr. Mureithi.

Safeguarding journalists

In a bid to seek various means to safeguard journalists and preserve press freedom in the face of public-promoted violence, several panelists gave their deliberations. 

Christine Kuria, Deputy Executive Director of Katiba Institute, said that protecting journalists is essential for realizing the fundamental right of freedom under the constitution. 

“The safety of journalists and the struggle against impunity of their tormentors are essential to preserving the fundamental rights of freedom of expression. 

This is not only an individual right, but also a collective right that empowers the population through facilitating dialogue participation democracy, making autonomous and sustainable development possible,” she continued.

Agnes Kalekye, Chairperson of the Media Owners Association, alluded to the theme in celebration in comparison to the role of the journalists. 

She said the theme resonated with the media owners and called for collective responsibility to uphold press freedom and call out those who violate the rights of journalists.

David Omwoyo, MBS, Chief Executive Officer MCK, spoke on the violations of journalists’ rights, terming them as a significant drawback to press freedom not only in Kenya but also globally. 

David Omwoyo, MBS, Chief Executive Officer Media Council of Kenya, addressing the participants. PHOTO/MCK.

“Protecting journalists is about people knowing that their actions and inactions are making media worker’s work difficult. 

We ask those in government, civil society, and the justice system to ensure that crimes against journalists are punished,” he said.

Judy Munyinyi, Information Secretary Ministry of Information, Communication and Digital Economy, on the other hand, assured the journalists of government support in creating a thriving environment for the media.

“The government is your key champion in your practice, especially the Ministry of Information and Digital Economy because it is in our best interest that we ensure that the media industry remains vibrant,” said Munyinyi.

She underscored the importance of adhering to the provisions of the Kenyan Constitution that speak to freedom. 

“The Kenyan constitution stands as a testament to the protection of all Kenyans and the freedom of expression, which extends to press freedom. 

These principles are fundamental and non-negotiable. It is our utmost duty to ensure they are defended,” continued Ms. Munyinyi.

While taking stock on the same issue, Dr. Mathew Owili, Deputy Governor of Kisumu County, called on stakeholders to safeguard press freedom. 

He agreed that since journalists cover sensitive assignments, serious attacks normally encounter them. 

He called for the need to document the deaths and injuries of journalists.

Dr. Mathew Owili, Deputy Governor of Kisumu County, giving his remarks during the event. PHOTO/MCK.

He gave insight into rethinking how to compensate the journalists in the case of loss and persecution through the stakeholders delving deep into how possible they can access the 185 million Euros provided by the European Union for the compensation of journalists.

Uphold journalists’s rights

During the event, the Prosecutor of the Republic of Kenya, Mr. Renson Igonga, reaffirmed his commitment to uphold the rights and freedoms of journalists and ensure justice for those who harm them.

“Journalists have a vital role in disseminating information on public interest, promoting the rule of law, upholding freedom of expression and media and accessing information as enshrined in the constitution. 

It is those journalists who face challenges such as threats, harassment, intimidation, and even murder,” he continued.

He said that his office is committed to creating an environment where journalists can work without fear or intimidation, adding that he’ll ensure the following measures are undertaken:

  1. Expedite investigations into crimes committed against journalists and present those culpable to court.
  2. Protect witnesses and whistleblowers who provide credible sources of information, especially against individuals of influence in society, and fully utilize the provisions of the Witness Protection Act and the Whistle Blowers Protection Act.
  3. Train and sensitize prosecutors, police officers and law enforcement agencies on how to adopt measures and strategies to address crimes against journalists and ensure timely prosecution.
  4. Collaborate and coordinate with media stakeholders to enhance information sharing and exchange of ideas and to foster a culture of accountability and transparency.
  5. Revamp the Public Affairs and Corporate Communication Division to provide a platform for disseminating information regarding the investigation and prosecution of crimes against journalists.

The Prosecutor also noted that there are numerous instances of misinformation and disinformation by journalists, otherwise referred to as “fake news”. 

He emphasized that this trend erodes the credibility and integrity of journalism and urged journalists to adhere to high standards of professionalism and ethics.

“Let us recommit ourselves to the protection of those who dedicate their lives in upholding values,” he concluded.

Members of the fourth estate observed that the celebration could not have come at a better time. 

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They left the event mentally equipped on individual safety and aware that misinformation and disinformation are a no-go zone in their field. 

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