Maraga hails the media for role in democracy and constitutionalism at KEG Press Club NAIROBI, June 12th, 2018 – Chief Justice David Maraga, praised the role played by the media in entrenching democracy and constitutionalism in Kenya since the 1990s.
In a speech delivered at the Press Club Luncheon, the Chief Justice (CJ) recalled the ultimate price played by journalists Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia, Dan Eldon in Somalia, as well as the paralysis suffered by Wallace Gichere at the hands of the KANU government, in pursuit of democratic space in Somalia and Kenya respectively.
Quoting the 2017 International Journalists Federation (IJF) Report, which states that 82 journalists and media staff were killed in the course of duty in 2017 alone, CJ Maraga noted that the experience that journalists go through in carrying out their work demonstrates the role the media plays to augment democracy – a role that is not often recognized.
“Indeed, while narratives about the struggle for democratic and political reforms in this country exalt the role of opposition politicians, church leaders and civil society organizations, the media (and specifically persons who courageously reported on these stories) are not given equal prominence in the mainstream discourses on constitutional and political reforms”, he said.
Accordingly, the CJ noted that democracy, constitutionalism and media freedom are inextricably intertwined concept, which he said, led the crafters of the new Constitution promulgated in 2010, to entrench media freedom in the constitution in Articles 32 and 34, including the right to access information, which he said leads to an informed citizenry able to hold those in power to account.
“The media contributes to an informed citizenry and, in turn, an informed citizenry is able to play its role in a constitutional democracy. The recognition and entrenchment of media freedom and independence, thus provides an important basis for consolidating our constitutional democracy”, he noted.
The CJ’s remarks echoed those of the Chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, Churchill Otieno, who called for an end to attacks on independent journalists, with Counties being the latest arena. He asked the Judiciary to do more to protect journalists in the course of duty, while vowing to continue holding those in power to account in the interests of the public and country at large.
“Those who attack journalists; those who threaten journalists; those who exploit journalists; those who unduly influence media; and those who abuse media power must be called out, for they do a great injustice to the people and the nation”, noted Mr. Otieno.
While calling for strong and independent media houses, Mr Otieno noted that the only way to attain such viability was through profitability, which opened the media to undue editorial pressure from advertisers pursuing commercial interests, compromising public interest. He further noted that the viability and consequent strength and independence of media houses was being challenged by hefty defamation awards by courts of law.
“The runaway rise of defamation awards must come into focus. Surely we must find it odd that when it comes to court awards, suing the media is fetching more than losing a limb in an accident. How do we explain that a paraplegic is awarded lesser damages for injuries sustained in an accident than the same person would get for three lines of libel in a newspaper?”, he queried.
Speaking at the same function, Commissioner George Morara, the Vice Chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), reiterated the critical role the media plays in a constitutional democracy, despite what he termed as negativity and bashing about the quality of media reporting, which he called upon the media to continually challenge and address.
“Perhaps we should be bolder and challenge the lazy assumptions frequently made by politicians, public figures, some newspaper owners and even colleagues that all journalists operate to predetermined agendas, are congenitally compromised and incapable of objectivity”, he proposed.
While acknowledging the challenges afflicting media houses in terms of dwindling resources and advertising revenues, Commissioner Morara, challenged the media to operate to a higher standard commensurate to the privileges accorded to the media by the rights guaranteed in the constitution.
“Commentary journalism cannot replace independent coverage – researched, sourced and presented to a professional standard…we cannot leave open newsrooms to ‘experts, analysts and commentators’ to set and control the newsroom agenda. If we do this we risk the danger of sub-contracting objectivity to those who have no business and understanding of what public interest entails”, he opined.
Commissioner Morara at the same time urged editors to provide journalists with the resources they need to do what is rightly expected of them instead of relying on what he termed as cheap labour or inadequately staffed newsrooms.
“It (journalistic quality) means paying journalists a decent wage. It means staffing newsrooms. It means an end to the abuse of interns and the use of experts to fill gaps”, he advised.
Speaking on behalf of the Media Owners’ Association, Vice Chair, Tom Mshindi, thanked the CJ for the Judiciary’s commitment to protecting media freedom, noting that the media sometimes tends feel alone in its quest to hold authorities to account. He further pledged to support the Judiciary and media practitioners to improve court reporting skills.