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Kudos scribes, politicians are wheelbarrows that move only when pushed

It’s a wrap, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press. Another eventful year gone, one that many Kenyans including journos would like to forget fast. You could count on the fingers of one hand the uplifting headlines you saw the entire year.

How will media historians remember 2023? As a tough year for everyone. Ok, it’s the festive season, so we won’t rehash all the hardships here or we would ruin our readers’ well-deserved holidays.

The media demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of a double whammy, namely, bad business in a practically collapsed economy and a blitzkrieg of attacks from the highest echelons of state power.

It’s the year when a battered NTV cameraman became the face of state brutality on media freedom, sparking consternation and alarm around the world about the health of Kenya’s democracy. Were we plunging back into the Dark Days?

Eric Isinta was seriously injured in March while covering protests called by the opposition Azimio coalition over last year’s elections and the skyrocketing cost of living, among other issues. Eric was one among many scribes caught up in the clashes between police and protesters.

That was, no doubt, the biggest story of the year. It tested the limits of the government’s commitment to media freedom as a cornerstone of democracy.

But Maandamano only added to unceasing attacks and brazen attempts by top government officials to delegitimise and intimidate the media into submission and silence. Throughout the year the Kenya Kwanza administration of President William Ruto appeared to believe the media was its enemy.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Senate Majority Leader Aron Cheruiyot, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichungw’ah, and Public Service Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria were among senior Kenya Kwanza officials who demonstrated extreme intolerance of media freedom and dissent, and repeatedly dragged the name of the Fourth Estate in the mud.

Granted, some of the concerns of the government about skewed reporting could be warranted. Nobody ever said the media comprises of angels. And to be sure, a lot happens in the media space outside the glittering editorial policies of media houses and beyond the high-minded pronouncements of their owners and managers. But it is not the job of the state to police journalism whereas the Constitution provides for self-regulation through the Media Council of Kenya.

Sadly, media repression worsened across the continent, according to the global civil society alliance Civicus: “The past year has seen increasing attacks on press freedom in Africa through the detention and prosecution of journalists, intimidation, harassment of and threats against journalists, acts of censorship such as the suspension of media outlets, censorship of LGBTQI+ and protest-related content, attacks against journalists and disruption of internet and social media access,” the alliance says in its end of year report.

As the economy continued its downward spiral, layoffs and delayed salaries became the order of the day. To date there are places where correspondents – the beasts of burden especially in newspaper journalism – have not been paid their dues for many months. It is anyone’s guess how they get by, to say nothing of the impact of this depressing situation on professional performance and integrity.

Despite these debilitating hardships, the media generally remained unshaken in delivery of its constitutional mandate. The MCK stayed vigilant throughout the year as an agile, bold, and indefatigable defender of the rights of journalists to do their work, besides offering many other forms of support to the industry.

The Annual Journalism Excellence Awards organised by MCK is a great barometer of professional quality. Going by the large number of submissions, breadth of subjects covered and calibre of competency in display, it is no exaggeration to say that Kenyan journalism ranks up there among the best in the world.

However, most media houses are still limited to reporting “he/she said” stories, “mystery surrounds”, “puzzle”, “unanswered questions”, with little effort to carry out independent investigations into the biggest stories of the day. This matter calls for urgent attention from newsroom leaderships.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press, we have a job to do. Politicians and other holders of public power don’t move. They must be pushed. That is the job of every scribe because, as Frederick Douglass, the American slave who escaped, famously said, power concedes nothing without a demand.

And as the events of this year amply show, when politicians are pushed, they push back. Nothing to worry about. It only means journalists must be more courageous and unyielding, more committed to professionalism, better organised, and outspoken in defence of their freedom and independence.

Happy holidays!

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