Last Friday, on May 3, media stakeholders worldwide marked the World Press Freedom Day. This day is set aside to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluate press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

This is an important celebration for media practitioners, citizens and governments around the world.  Governments have a duty to respect their commitment to press freedom while media professionals should equally take lead about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

In a democracy, the people have the right to know the happenings. The press is a watchdog. If there’s something the public should know, you can bet journalists will be or should be reporting on it.

Journalists also have the responsibility of reporting and educating the masses. The media can bear legitimate criticism when it acts in bad faith, but the answer is not to suppress the freedom of the press.

Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, stated the importance of the press:“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay, during the World Press Freedom Day noted that all nations are strengthened by information, debate and exchange of opinions. She further emphasised the need to guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information based on truth.

In Kenya, the Media Council of Kenya brought together media stakeholders where the findings of a study on the status of the media in the country were shared  and discussed. The Kenya Editor’s Guild identified the sustainability question, harassment and attacks on journalists, weakness in ethical practice and delayed legal and policy reforms as key threats to independent journalism.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index ranks Kenya 100th out of 180, with a score of 32.44 in press freedom. The position marks a drop of four spots compared to the previous ranking, a clear indicator that more needs to be done to promote press freedom and independence.

In recent years, Kenyan journalists have faced challenges, including physical attacks, intimidation, arrests and harassment. This should explain our drop in the World Press Freedom Index.

Press freedom is enshrined in Articles 33 on Freedom of expression, 34 on Freedom of the media and 35 on Access to Information in the Constitution. While a lot of emphasis has been placed (by media organisations) on freedom of expression and media, a strong access to information system is vital to maintaining a healthy democracy.

Access to timely and accurate information provides individuals with the knowledge required to participate effectively in democratic processes. It fosters openness and transparency. Therefore, the media should take a leading role towards its implementation.

The government’s response to attacks on journalists has been wanting. Many cases remain unsolved, and this does not inspire confidence in journalists. There should be deliberate efforts by the government to protect freedom of the press. Incidents that undermine media freedom should be profiled by all stakeholders so  decisive action is taken against culprits.

Media houses must also take seriously the issue of safety and security of journalists, including continuous safety training and investing in safety kits.

BY KEVIN MABONGA

This Article was first published by People Daily on 9th May 2019