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Kenya’s press freedom has drastically dropped, according to the World Press Freedom Index for 2014 by Reporters without Borders. Kenya slipped 18 positions to rank 90 out 180 countries surveyed.

According to the global watchdog, the dwindling press freedom in Kenya can be attributed to the con-troversial security laws passed last year as a response to what authorities call irresponsible coverage of the Westgate Mall terror attack in Westlands, Nairobi in September 2013, which left 67 people dead.

The Media Council of Kenya (MCK) report indicates that “the government made grave mistakes in its information management during the incident and the media made it worse through speculative report-ing”.

“The government had initially reported that the terrorists were 15 and the number later reduced to 10 but the CCTV cameras showed only four,” says the council in the report.

The MCK report further says that the jaded journalists whose colleague Joshua Sang is facing criminal charges at the International Criminal Court over the swill of the 2007/08 post-election violence have resorted to self-censorship to avoid legal sanctions.

Any attempts to do in-depth reporting were further thwarted when former Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo threatened to prosecute Standard Group’s chief executive over the Inside Story, an in-vestigative piece by journalists John Allan Namu and Mohamed Ali.
The duo had sought to dig deep into the Jubilee government’s handling of the unprecedented attack of which Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of the global terror network, Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility.

The government has, however, defended itself citing national security and explained that journalists’ would easily serve the interests of the terrorists through their handling of stories on terrorism.

Journalists have however objected to this saying they were acting in public interest and the right of the Kenyan citizens to know. The threat by Mr Kimaiyo was quickly retracted due to public pressure through the social media.

According to a baseline survey on the Safety and Protection of Kenyan Journalists (2013) by Kenya Media Programme, the government and media houses’ commercial interests are considered the biggest threat to media freedom in Kenya. These findings were played out during the build up to the 2013 Gen-eral Election.

The Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA) documented that a Nairobi Star newspaper journalist based in Homa Bay Town in western Kenya was assaulted by paramilitary security personnel as he covered a confrontation between rival candidates two days ahead of the 2013 General Election.

The KCA website indicates that “Habil Onyango was kicked and punched by the security personnel locally known as the General Service Unit (GSU), as he covered the confrontation between the sup-porters of two parliamentary candidates in the town.”

“The GSU officers declined to recognise his press card and flung him into a lorry before driving him to the local police station where they eventually released him, in great pain,” says the report.

Enactment of the security laws by the Kenyan National Assembly works against the spirit and letter of the progressive 2010 Constitution which anticipates an independent media provided for in article 34.

The Media Owners, Editors Guild and the Kenya Correspondents Association went to court challeng-ing the constitutionality of both the Media Council Act 2013 and the Kenya Information and Commu-nication Act (KICA) 2013, both providing for parallel multimedia tribunals.

KCA chair William Oloo Janak said: “It was double jeopardy as the Media Council of Kenya, through the Complaints Commission also has powers to levy fines on journalists, creating an environment which would harass and intimidate the journalists into silence and stifle media freedom, freedom of expression and ultimately, the exercise of democracy by Kenyan citizens.”

Philip Kirui a practicing radio journalist in Kericho, in western Kenya, lamented that the media Acts have lavishly given powers to the oversight bodies to levy prohibitive fines on individual journalists and on media houses that contravene them.

“These fines are likely to go against the spirit of plurality of media ownership and may make media ownership to be the preserve of the few rich. Some media outlets which operate on little capital could be forced to close down through such fines”.

While speaking at a journalists’ awareness workshop at a hotel in Westlands, Nairobi in November 2014, the Swedish Press Ombudsman Ola Sigvardsson said the media space in Sweden is freer com-pared to Kenya.

Sigvardsson said that the Swedish press regulates itself without funding from the government. The Press Council, he said is funded by the media industry and donors.

The Kenyan media industry can learn from the best practice in Sweden that it is possible to have a self-regulating media.

Participants in the workshop which was convened by Development Through Media (DTM) Africa were drawn from Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and Kisumu counties of Kenya.

They expressed optimism that the media industry in Kenya can improve mainly through entrenchment of professionalism and proper legislation.

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