OPINION: Election Preparedness; Why Media houses must beef up in-house policies on safety and protection of journalists

OPINION: Election Preparedness; Why Media houses must beef up in-house policies on safety and protection of journalists

By Dinnah Ondari

As the country gears to up to the General Election on August 9, 2022, the conversation around media preparedness and scenario building around the electioneering period has taken the center stage. The role of the media in agenda setting oversight, civic education, and general awareness creation during this time cannot be overemphasized.

And just like in the prevailing Covid-19 situation, the media will be expected to be a reference point for facts, critical debates and framing on election issues. Journalists and media practitioners will be expected to stay at the frontline and therefore no effort should be spared to ensure that the media is well equipped, to play its role in the national exercise.

Evidently the industry is awake to this fact judging from ongoing debates among industry leaders under the aegis of the Kenya Media Sector Working Group to ensure that the media is not caught off-guard especially in light of gaps identified in the 2017/18 and 2013 general elections. Some of the issues identified include capacity building among journalists on election reporting, the rule of law during elections, access and provision of information on elections as well as safety and protection of journalists.

The conversation taking place outside the newsroom where industry leaders are engaged in collaborative efforts with other duty bearers to establish mutually beneficial relationships in the period leading up to, during and post election is impressive.

However, the efforts of industry patrons may not achieve maximum impact if newsroom managers, media owners and journalists themselves do not hold to their end of the stick in ensuring that while they demand of other duty bearers to live up to their mandates, their rights and privileges are respected and granted respectively.

The MCK is privileged to have firsthand information on press freedom violations and trends on prevention, response and mitigation. The fact that the media becomes under intense pressure during the electioneering period resulting in a spike in press freedom violations has been acknowledged by all and sundry. This is because of the highly charged environment that journalist find themselves working in while covering activities around elections.

Duty bearers such as police, IEBC and the ODPP have also been on the receiving end for failing to enforce sanctions against those who fan and perpetuate violence around elections. To reverse the trend, the media itself must move past pointing accusing fingers at duty bearers.

While it is important to carry out its oversight role in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld by all, the media itself must look internally and address existing gaps on how newsrooms and journalist themselves approach the issue of safety and security within their newsrooms and in the field. One of the glaring gaps is the lack of vibrant in-house polices on safety and protection of journalists in the line of duty. The Council has data to show that apart from a few mainstream and international newsrooms, many have been playing passive role prevention and mitigation of attacks against their own journalists.

In 2013, the Council led industry stakeholders in developing a 10-point Charter for media owners, managers and editors to ensure journalists’ safety in the line of duty. A total of 23 media houses signed and committed to uphold the provisions of the charter that contained primary obligations of each player; there is need to revive these guidelines, review them in light of the prevailing media environment and ensure their enforcement.

Some of the issues addressed by the charter include, risk assessment, provision of protection (physical and legal) for journalists, resource allocation to safety programs, comprehensive security management strategies for journalists both in newsrooms and in the field. Some of the emerging issues that may also need mainstreaming include the prevailing COVID 19 pandemic, psychological health, sexual harassment and misinformation (how it affected independence of journalists and therefore exposing them to attacks).

The law mandates MCK to promote and protect the rights of journalists, while the institution has and continues to continuously deliver as per its mandate, the efforts can only succeed if there is equal collaboration from all stakeholders. Every player must play their part for maximum impact.

Dinnah Ondari is Manager Press Freedom, Safety and Advocacy, Media Council of Kenya