Kenyan journalists oppose plans to regulate vernacular political debates

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Kenya Editor’s Guild President Churchill Otieno. PHOTO/COURTESY

By JIMMY MWANGI

The Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ), Kenya Editor’s Guild (KEG) and Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA) have voiced their displeasure over plans to regulate vernacular political debates.

KEG termed the appointment of a task force to oversee localised political debates by the ICT and Youth Affairs Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru as ‘State interference in editorial work during a general election’.

KUJ has asked the ICT Cabinet Secretary to rescind the gazette notice  establishing the Technical Working Group on Local Media Gubernatorial, Senatorial and Women Representative Debates.

KUJ Secretary General Erick Oduor said this will allow the necessary democratic institutions and the media to conduct their democratic  responsibilities without apparent interference by the government.

In a 13-point statement KEG President Churchill Otieno, said: “Editorial work, especially during an election, is the primary and inviolable duty of the news media in a democratic society. State officers and state agencies have no role in this and must reject any temptation to interfere, as that would be an invitation to engage in illegalities.”

Mr Otieno said the Constitution of Kenya (2010), at Article 34, expressly bars the State from controlling and/or interfering in editorial matters, while Article 34 of the Constitution of Kenya guarantees Freedom of the Media.

KCA chairman, Mr Oloo Janak, accused Media Council of Kenya of being at the heart of an attempt to control the media sector.

Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA) chairman Oloo Janak. PHOTO/FILE

Mr Janak said actions by the MCK including its withdrawal from the Kenya Media Sector Working Group (KMSWG) constitute a violation of its mandate and wondered whether such actions are approved by the MCK board of directors.

Last Friday, Mr Mucheru gazetted a 15-member committee to be chaired by Sammy Muraya deputised by Phyllis Wakiaga to handle what is essentially a content management function.

The 15-member technical working group that comprises among others, Rose Wakio, Martin Masai, Vincent Ateya, Joel Karanja, Stephen Kangongo and Tom Mboya has been tasked with assessing the ability of community and vernacular media to execute governorship, senatorship, and woman representative debates ahead of the August polls.

The Kenya Editors’ Guild now says the appointment ‘came as a surprise to them when the CS unilaterally appointed’ the technical working group.

“While Masai did not have any prior knowledge of the conception, selection, appointment and gazettement, Muraya had had a previous conversation with an official in the Ministry of ICT, on the sidelines of a media event two weeks ago but did not expect gazettement. They were listed in their capacities and do not represent the Guild in this task force,” Mr Otieno adds.

According to the Guild, the Gazette Notice is Unconstitutional, illegal and untenable in the context of democratic discourse for several reasons.

And KUJ through its Secretary General said  conducting political debates for all the positions in the upcoming general election is a programming and editorial functions at the heart of all media.

“In our view, setting up the Technical Working Group in the manner and under the structures on which it is contemplated to operate is unconstitutional illegal and untenable,” Mr Odour said.

He added that setting up the Technical Working Group was untenable because the functions, powers and obligations of the technical working group was an encroachment into the programming and editorial matters of media houses.

Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) Secretary-General Erick Odour. PHOTO/COURTESY

“Moreover, the process is parallel to the initiatives by other media sector players,” he noted.

Mr Odour said the objectives, functions and operations of the Committee expressly contravene the provisions of Article 34 (2) of the Constitution. 2) The State shall not— (a) exercise control over or interfere with any person engaged in broadcasting, the production or circulation of any publication or the dissemination of information by any medium.

“The gazette notice provides for the involvement of the Media Council of Kenya in coordination through provision of secretariat facilities for the Committee. This mandate directly places the Council in conflict with its normative and legal mandate as a regulator,” he emphasized.

Mr Odour added Section 6 which prescribes the functions of the Media Council deliberately excludes the Council from involving in programming issues as the Council cannot simultaneously be a regulator and operator of the Media.

He said the process and criteria upon which the Working Group was established is not clear and this violates the principles of inclusion, transparency and accountability are directly put the Cabinet Secretary in new production in media houses.

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Nelson Mandela once said: “A critical, independent, and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

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