OPINION: For media freedom let’s build bridges between the pen and the gun in 2021

By Dinnah Ondari

It is now cliché to refer to 2020 as a difficult year, thanks to COVID-19.

Media especially took a hit from the harsh economic times resulting in the loss of jobs, salary cuts due to deteriorating revenue streams.

Industry think-tanks have been busy scouring for solutions to save the industry from collapse. But despite the threat to media sustainability, the industry remained undeterred in its performance.

Journalists remained in the frontline even when their pockets grew thin due to job cuts; some contracted the virus; others lost loved ones while some were quarantined for interacting with news sources and subjects who had been patients.

The Status of the Media survey 2020 that was released in December is evidence that the media will survive the pandemic, if it hasn’t already.

The report found that consumption of media content increased significantly during the COVID 19 period, which was attributed to one, the fact that most people were working from home and the lockdown period and as a result of the interest around information about the pandemic.

Though the report suggests that the findings could have been different if Kenyans were not at home, it is clear that audience trust soared during a time when the country was facing difficult times (one would expect the same case in any other crisis).

The survey found that confidence in the media rose to 97 percent with television and radio being the most trusted source of news standing at 74 percent in terms of popularity for both platforms.

This was a slight increase for TV which ranked at 73 percent in 2019 and a drop for radio which was ranked at 84 percent last year.

Social media was the third most used platform with WhatsApp and Facebook being the most popular, used mostly for networking purposes followed by breaking news and entertainment.

As to whether the media has been innovative enough to reap from these popularity is debatable, but it is evident the media is not going anywhere just yet.

Away from media sustainability and economic upheavals, there is another elephant in the in the room: safety threats against journalists.  Physical, health, digital, sexual harassment, name them.

2020 is the year for instance when, for the doubting Thomases, it became clear that while sexual harassment is one of the subtle threats to press freedom, it is deep rooted in the media environment.

Sexual harassment is not only prevalent in newsrooms but outside. The Council in partnership with Article 19 released a survey on November 2 which revealed that 62 percent of the respondents had either experienced or know someone who had suffered sexual harassment in the newsroom.

The situation gets worse: outside the newsroom, 73 percent of the respondents spoke to the high likelihood of being sexually harassed from sources , news subjects and colleagues in field.

But perhaps the most worrying fact was that up to half  (49percent) were uncomfortable to speak about their tribulations to their supervisors or persons in authority because of many factors; sometimes the supervisor is the perpetrator, embarrassment, normalization of the vice (nobody sees it as a wrong) and victimization just to name a few.

It is ironic that in an industry that speaks for the voiceless, works to protect the rights of others, a vice as grave as sexual harassment continues to thrive under the cloud of silence.

Silence protects the perpetrators while subjecting the victims who cannot find an outlet for their anger and frustration, even justice, to torture.

That is why the Council has been partnering with media houses and other interested institutions for interventions that will lead to formulation and implementation of practical gender harassment policies and creating a safe space for victims to speak out.

Out of nearly 90 violations documented by the council, physicals attacks involving assault, destruction of equipment, and other forms of harassment account for over half.

But the single most cause for worry is the dozens of incidents where police were named as the perpetrators.

By November 2, 2020 when the Council was releasing a report of violations against media during the COVID-19 period, police accounted for the largest number of attacks in various counties led by Nairobi, Turkana, Kiambu, Mombasa, Nakuru in that order.

As a public institution that monitors and documents such violations, a close scrutiny of the trends reveals that most of the attacks by the law enforcers can be avoided.

This can be done through creation of understanding between not only police but also all other public officers who are custodians of public information that media requires from time to time.

Through Media Information Literacy forums, MCK and its partners create awareness on the need to respect media freedom, the right to information and expression as per article 33,34 and 35 of the Constitution.

For these interventions to succeed, there must equally be a change of attitude both among the journalists news sources/subjects and the public in general.

With the BBI discourse, and impending referendum, not to mention that 2021 will be a pre-general election year, nothing less than mutual respect for the rights and obligations of both the supply and demand side of the right to information and a general culture of respect for all human rights will ensure a conducive environment for the media.

Let the power of the pen and gun be used for public interest, not against each other.

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