OPINION: Frontline workers who have been turned into enemies

    As Kenya marks the International Day to End Impunity Against Journalists (IDEI) on Monday, concern has grown over the rising number of journalists who are becoming victims of press Freedom violations.

    The COVID 19 period has posed insurmountable challenges to the media Industry.

    The ranking of the country at position 103 out of 180 countries evaluated in the World Press Freedom Index earlier in the year, and which was drop by three position from the previous year, was perhaps a premonition of what lay ahead.

    Generally, cases of press freedom violations have been highest in 2020 compared to the previous years.

    The Media Council of Kenya which has been documenting and monitoring the cases and maintains a national database recorded over 75 cases of violations against journalists and media workers compared to 56 and 26 in 2019 and 2018 respectively.

    The COVID 19 pandemic appears to have provided a breeding ground for the violations. While there are other causes for the surge ,COVID accounts for the biggest number of them.

    The Council will this morning release a report on the trends since March and September 2020.

    Monday’s commemoration will also provide a platform for industry leaders on the national, regional and international media space to chart the way forward in the wake of challenges posed by COVID 19.

    Out of the 75 cases documented, majority of them are related to challenges posed by the Pandemic.

    Many journalists became targets of harassment and assault by security agencies enforcing government guidelines on containment measures during the pandemic.

    And while physical attacks and denial of other rights such as the Right to Information constitute the common violations that journalists face, COVID appears to have also exposed the soft underbelly of the media industry; massive job losses affecting over 400 , salary cuts and journalists becoming victims of general insecurity due to the hard economic times, have made the situation worse.

    Other threats include soft censorship, political interference which from time to time compromised editorial decisions, and journalists being caught up in political chaos and conflicts.

    The Council has been in the fore front by stakeholders in ensuring a united front in responding to threats against existing and emerging threats, through the Kenya Media Sector working Group.

    Such interventions included direct media grants which have seen 500 journalists benefit from financial reporting grants and training on reporting on COVID 19.

    A total of 125 community radio stations and 25 TV also stations benefitted from Sh 200 million in financial support.

    The Council continues to engage the offices of the Inspector General (IG) of Police, Independent Police Oversight Authority and that of Director of Public Prosecutions on attacks against journalists.

    Since the beginning of the year the Council has written not less that 15 letters to the IG to follow up on cases reported by journalists

    The Media Sector Response Team (MESERT) through the support UNESCO developed and disseminated safety guidelines for media houses and journalists on COVID-19 and continues to sensitise stakeholders on the same.

    Other interventions include Psychosocial and compassionate support, Distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE’s) and Identification and debunking of misinformation and fake content –

    For these strategies and efforts to succeed every institution including media houses, journalist associations , human rights organisations, development partner and security agencies must keep their end of the bargain.

    Media houses for instance can ensure that they provide a safe working environment for their journalist both in the newsroom and while in the field.

    It is clear that the need for reforms in the media ecosystem is necessary, to make the outlets vibrant to enable them play their watch dog role in the society.

    These challenges, if left unaddressed, can be a threat to democracy and a free society because there is need to have a strong media to keep check on democratic institutions and facilitate access to information by citizens.

    The Council has previously and continue to lead efforts in search of solutions such as: the establishment of a Media Sustainability Fund, Review of advertising and revenue models ,promotion of Digital content, Establishment/creation of a national journalist safety and rapid response fund/mechanism, and Public Interest litigation on press freedom violations and Name and shame of perpetrators of press freedom violations.

    As we support security agencies in the pursuit of justice for journalists who fall victim to press freedom violations, it is important that complaints against journalists and media enterprises are channeled through the Complaints Commission as opposed to aggrieved parties taking the law into their hands to attack journalists.

    Dinah Ondari works at the Media Council of Kenya as the Manager, Accreditation and Compliance