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Code of conduct for digital media practitioners a tool for self-regulation

By Mutisya Leo

The Media Self-Regulation Guidebook, published in 2008 by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), argues that media self-regulation is a joint endeavour by media professionals to set up voluntary editorial guidelines and abide by them in a learning process open to the public.

A Code of Conduct for Digital Media Practitioners was published on the Media Council of Kenya website late last year and shared widely across relevant social media platforms. It is a huge milestone for an industry that suffers from sporadic spasms of harsh regulation by the government under the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018. If content creators can adopt these guidelines, they can act responsibly, accept responsibility for misnomers thereby preserving the idea and practice that self-regulation is possible in Kenya’s digital space. That kind of culture once established would serve to promote the elusive editorial autonomy.

The document was under development since April 2019 vide a committee set up by the digital content creation community. This was in recognition of the fact that the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya (domiciled at MCK) was majorly restricted to legacy media, covering journalists accredited under the council mechanisms.

Furthermore, just the previous year in 2018, the government had come up with the infamous Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act, which to a large extent was seen as an attempt to criminalise journalism and generally the freedom of media. While there is an ongoing appeal on more than 25 clauses of the law, it is curiously undergoing a parliamentary amendment to even introduce more stringent provisions to the extent the amendment Bill has come for scrutiny by members of the civil society thus –

Civil society has highlighted the bill’s contravention of the constitutional freedom of expression and the rule of law, and urges the National Assembly to suspend its deliberation until the Court of Appeal’s decision in Civil Appeal No. 197 of 2020. The continued consideration of the bill by the National Assembly despite its knowledge of a pending suit is illegal and cannot proceed.[1]

Self-regulation is not a new phenomenon in Kenya. Many media houses and organisations have in-house editorial guidelines most of which imbibe the Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya . Such guidelines, normatively, aim at preserving editorial independence, promoting quality content and as evidence of accountability. It is said that if self-regulation was strictly adhered to, then there will be less need for governments to intervene. Yet, there is a long way to go in a context where governments and markets bear, and brandish at will, the economic muscle rendering editorial autonomy inept.

A few bloggers have created their own regulations under various umbrellas, but most are guided by community rules set by the techy companies.

This code targets digital content creators and mainstreams these scattered efforts for non-journalists particularly in the digital space to establish a common standard that can be utilised by all, and ultimately equalises the practice (profession?).

The spirit of the code is properly captured by the pre-ample – The intent of this code is to define and adopt a set standard of industry practice and professionalise digital media communication so that it accords dignity and respect to all. The code emphasises the responsibility that digital media practitioners owe consumers and the society.

From the onset the code defines itself as a self-administered instrument for the wiling, whose purpose is to provide guidelines for digital media players. By so doing, the proposed provisions therein aim at empowering practitioners in the digital space to adhere to set legal, professional, and ethical standards.

Now, while some of the proposals like truth and accuracy, balance and fairness, and hate speech seem like a reproduction of the mainstream code for journalists, they have been scrutinised and deliberately calibrated to reflect online and internet as a new challenge altogether, and as a way of unlimiting freedom of expression.

The code introduces new sections, inter alia.

  1. Reporting of refugees: The code guides on what terms to avoid while addressing refugees, especially as a way of mitigating hate, extremism, and inflammatory language.
  2. It elaborates and provides details on what to look out for while blogging on children, a vulnerable section of our society.
  3. Conflict of interest and how to deal with it – this takes cognizance of the fact that the digital space is manipulable and that bloggers are sometimes motivated by interests, therefore needing proper guidance.
  4. Endorsement, advertisement and marketing – This is imperative since most content creators disseminate content paid for by their supporters, and sometimes, every retweet or share is paid for. This code encourages disclosure on the part of the blogger/influencer or digital native.
  5. One section which might prove to be controversial is that which demands for full disclosure thus –Digital media practitioners are encouraged to provide the audience with prominently visible visual cues, on visual content, and/or a verbal mention of the brand in audio/audio-visual content, to enable them to understand, immediately, that they are engaging with marketing content.
  6. Besides, the section on content removal and corrections, while some might view the language as strictly journalistic, there is definitely a catch. It is good practice to apologise especially for content that is misleading or can possibly cause harm, and evidence has shown the internet to be prone to such. The guidelines in this section aim at dealing with the impact of dis/misinformation, thereby creating safe spaces for all audiences.

The code further seeks to guide digital content creators on issues of copyright and plagiarism, digital content manipulation, spamming, hacking (including ethical hacking), and online harassment and cyber bullying.

Above all, the code proposes public protection above anything else – that the public should be protected from harmful, fraudulent persons, products, services, and organisations. It calls for accountability on the digital content practitioners.

While this is good progress, the committee appreciated the existence of one challenge, formulated in the question – Where will the code be domiciled? We appreciate that these are codes of behaviour for the digital media, which are necessary to support the freedom of expression as envisaged in the Constitution of Kenya. In equal measure, the behaviours envisaged therein need to be monitored and those in contravention held to account. This will not be possible until the code is domiciled within an institutional framework which will absorb the responsibility of monitoring, training, and enforcement.

Meanwhile, the committee encourages associations and media support groups operating in the digital space to adopt the code for their members and enforce it as may be necessary. Furthermore, the digital natives are full-fledged institutions, which can utilise the document for internal guidelines. We expect a review soon to establish progress and to advise the Kenya Kwanza administration accordingly given there are plans of reviewing various sectoral legislations and policies.


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