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Mutyambai’s illness reveals timid media hiding behind imaginary laws, ethics

Mombasa Road broke a huge story on Friday afternoon, August 26. “Top ranking police officer collapses at home, rushed to hospital,” the headline said on the Standard Group website.

“A high-ranking police officer on Thursday night, August 25, collapsed at his home in Nairobi. He was immediately taken to a high-end private hospital for treatment,” the report said.

“The Standard understands that he was admitted to the high dependency unit (HDU). The HDU is a specialist ward providing intensive care (treatment and monitoring) for critically ill people.”

Who was the top cop? No answer.

“A relative of the senior police officer who spoke to The Standard in confidence said the patient was responding well to treatment”.

His name?

“Due to legal and ethical reasons, we won’t publish the officer’s identity”.

What law? What ethical reasons?

Within hours of this story going up, the National Police Service issued a press release signed by Inspector General of Police Hilary Mutyambai.

“This is to inform the general public that I will be away from office attending to a medical check-up effective today, 26th August, 2022,” he said. Deputy IG Administration, Noor Gabow, would take over in acting capacity.

The media could now report the story. The beloved press release had arrived.

What was the big deal? The media generally treats the health of public figures as a taboo subject. That is misplaced modesty. The health of public officials is a legitimate subject of public interest and therefore journalistic inquiry. Nothing in the Constitution, the laws or the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya bars the media from reporting truthfully and exhaustively about the illness of a public official.

Article 31 of the Constitution stipulates that, “Every person has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have— a) their person, home or property searched; b) their possessions seized; c) information relating to their family or private affairs unnecessarily required or revealed; or d) the privacy of their communications infringed”.

The Code of Conduct states that, “Things concerning a person’s home, family, religion, tribe, health, sexuality, personal life and private affairs are covered by the concept of privacy except where these impinge upon the public.”

But IGP Mutyambai’s right to privacy (or any public figure’s) must be weighed against the public’s right to know and freedom of the media. Article 34 limits freedom of the media only with regard to, a) propaganda for war; b) incitement to violence; c) hate speech; and d) advocacy of hatred.

Article 35 (b) upholds the public’s right to know: “The State shall publish and publicise any important information affecting the public”.

The health of the Inspector General of Police is unquestionably a matter of public interest, especially if he is seriously ill in HDU. To the extent that the public pays Mutyambai’s medical bills, and that serious illness that may hinder him from performing his duties can constitute grounds for resignation, his health is a matter of public interest.

That is why the National Police Service issued a press release about Mutyambai’s illness. The public needed to know.

But the media does not have to wait for press releases. Or treat Kenyans so contemptuously as The Standard did by hiding Mutyambai’s identity while citing non-existent “legal and ethical reasons”.

This incident exposes, for the nth time, an embarrassing weakness of the Kenyan media, namely, kotowing to power instead of holding power to account. Take note that the National Police Service was not quoted in the story. Why didn’t The Standard crosscheck with Vigilance House?

The truth of the matter is that our journalism generally lacks courage. It is partly a survival tactic (collusion, business interests) and partly a reflection of the timid citizenry that has never fully healed from the traumas of the Kenyatta and Moi dictatorships.

There are countless important stories the media has never told, or told poorly, because of fear of power or complicity. Yet the media is truly free.

Saturday, August 27, was Katiba Day, marking 12 years since promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Our vastly transformative Supreme Law that is celebrated across the world would remain mostly dead text if the citizens (including the media) do not breathe life into it by courageously exercising the rights and freedoms it offers.

Tusome Katiba yetu. Don’t hide your fear of power behind imaginary laws and ethics. If you don’t enjoy and respect freedom, how will you fight for others to enjoy it? That requires courage.

See you next week!

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