OPINION: Journalists, the gallant soldiers of public good

OPINION: Journalists, the gallant soldiers of public good

By David Omwoyo

As the World celebrates ‘Information as a Public Good’ on the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), journalists remain the heroes of the COVID-19 period for risking their lives and health to remain in the frontline in search of information and using it to the tell stories to rest of the world.

The annual Media summit/Annual Journalism Excellency Awards organized by the Media Council of Kenya, which this year coincide with the WPFD, is therefore a good opportunity to celebrate, honour and reward the professionalism and sacrifices made by these frontline soldiers.

While challenges exist and the media players are working on mitigating the adverse effects of these challenges on the journalism profession, media is still perceived and ranked the most trusted institution in the country.

The status of the media survey conducted by the Media Council of Kenya and released in December 2020 revealed that the media was still the most trusted institution in Kenya, which should serve as an encouragement during the time when the industry is battling the adverse effects of COVID-19 many of them threatening the sustainability of the sector.

Current situation and challenges

We salute the over 300 journalists who contracted and recovered from the pandemic while in the line of duty.

In the first quarter of the year alone, the industry lost three journalists to the pandemic: Robin Njogu, Winnie Mukami and Reuben Githinji.

Statistics shared by media houses indicate that another 1,278 journalists were affected by various cost cutting measures including job losses or salary cuts that were implemented by the sector, as it readjusted to deal with the COVID 19 pandemic.

A media house in Kericho County had to close after all its staff contracted the virus and sent into quarantine, in addition to the stigma they faced following the incidence.

Journalists in Kilifi and Siaya counties faced the wrath of their professional lives, when neighbors feared interacting with them merely because they were frontline workers, who mingled with audiences who most likely had contracted COVID-19.

In Baringo County, a journalist had his camera confiscated and was ‘quarantined’ for several days, because his media house had carried a story linking some death of a family member to COVID-19.

Obviously, the COVID-19 containment measures, including the implementation of the public health rules and regulations, have had impact on access to information and journalism practice in Kenya.

Kenya has been listed at 102 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2021, an all-time low a period of three years and a drop from last year’s position 100.

Many journalists fell victim to police brutality during the enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines. Since May 2020, the Council had documented over 100 cases of violations. 50 percent of these attributed to denial of access (information, physical).

Several repressive laws and administrative codes governing the media still exist. On May 3, the Council will be launching a report on the media sector legislative review, which is an analysis of at least 20 laws that need to be amended to guarantee a conducive working environment for the media.

It is our hope that after the launch of the legislative review report the duty bearers and especially parliament will support the industry in implementation of proposals and recommendations.

One of the biggest challenges facing content developers is the use of journalistic content by internet companies without regard to copyright or commensurate compensation.

At a time when journalists are losing jobs, suffering salary cuts and correspondents going without salaries for months, there is need to address this gap as one was of bridging current disparities in compensation and pay for media content and news producers.

Media ownership/commercial/political capture continues to be a big impediment to independent editorial content production.

There is hope.

To cushion the industry from the vagaries of COVID-19, the Council in 2020 partnered with stakeholders and rolled out journalists grants that benefited over 500 story tellers, direct grants to over 140 media and content outlets, held counselling sessions with those affected by the pandemic and published guidelines on COVID-19 safety measures and issued Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to journalists in the country.

In addition, the Council working with the Ministry of Health and Kemri and the Council of Governors ensured that journalists and media practitioners got the COVID-19 jab.

The Council has just concluded the first rounds distribution of branded merchandise (branded jackets, caps, T-shirts and name tags).

To promote support for the media, the Council periodically conducts trainings on access to information trainings and media information and literacy forums among stakeholders.

Through a partnership with the Commission on Administrative Justice (CAJ) for instance, journalists in five counties have already been trained, and a journalists’ handbook on Access to Information published.

This enhances support for the work of journalists and promotes a harmonious working environment for journalists while in their field while ensuring their safety.

Misinformation compromises the integrity of journalism thereby undermining its efforts to work for public good. The Council runs an elaborate media monitoring program which helps identify challenges in accuracy in storytelling.

The monitoring reports enhance its interventions in equipping media house and journalists with tools to identify, verify and fact checking in information before publication.

The Council on partnership with GIZ Kenya has set up a hotline for reporting of fake news. We encourage media house to invest in research and fact checking desks as an effective way of responding to misinformation.

MCK will continue to support initiatives by individual content developers and media enterprises in reviewing their business models while leveraging on opportunities provided by technology for development and distribution of content (e.g paywalls, subscription). The Council also supports efforts for the setting up of a media support fund.

David Omwoyo is the Chief Executive Officer of the Media Council of Kenya (MCK)

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