31 May 2008

Kenya: Pornography Reigns in Media As Public Yearns for Solutions

Nairobi — Experts have warned over the easy access to pornography in Kenya which has been blamed for the rise in rape cases, childhood sex and sexually transmitted diseases.

Kenyans, both young and old, are being assaulted daily by pornographic material on TV, radio, matatus, the Internet, video show kiosks and even their mobile phones.

The Centre for the Study of Adolescence recently released a report in which it said that up to 10,000 school girls are dropping out of school every year after becoming pregnant.

The media are on the spot for being among the leading purveyors of pornography. They stand accused of breaking, with impunity, the laws that protect the public from consuming obscene material. Others have failed to stick to their own code of conduct which provides guidelines on decency.

According to the clause seven of the Code of Conduct and Practice of Journalism in Kenya, "the media should avoid publishing obscene, vulgar or offensive material unless such material contains a news value, which is necessary in the public interest."

And yet, cases of violation of the code are rampant. The ubiquitous nature of FM radio stations, for instance, means that they do not only reach out to individual listeners who may switch to a different station, but they are also played in public transport vehicles in which the drivers chose the stations that the passengers listen to.

While FM stations are the greatest culprits in broadcasting pornography in 14-seater matatus, the 25-seaters are equally guilty with their videotaped music shows, most of which contain sexually explicit lyrics and images.

Media Council of Kenya chairman Wachira Waruru says pornography is "a very serious problem" that is worsened by a weak regulatory framework. The council, which promotes press freedom and responsible journalism, seems to be unable to crack the whip largely because it only acts on complaints rather than policing violations of the code of conduct.

Among its key functions, the Council lists a complaints resolution service that arbitrates complaints brought by wananchi on violations of the Code of Conduct by media houses. The service is provided free of charge "and is independent of control by the media".

But how many people know of the existence of the service and how to lodge complaints? Ignorance appears to be at the centre of the problem, since the Media Council clearly spells out what an aggrieved listener or viewer - and indeed, newspaper reader - should do. Complaints to the council should be accompanied by basic information, including:

Press cuttings of the complete article and name of publication. For broadcast media, the Media Council of Kenya will assist the complainant to acquire the offending tape.

Background information about the complainant and an indication of how the he or she thinks a section of the Code of Conduct has been breached.

Copies of relevant correspondence with editors and any other document that may help the council to understand or assess complaints.

If the council thinks the complainant does not raise a possible breach of the Code of Conduct, then the complainant will be informed in writing, with the letter being copied to the concerned editors.

But the devil is in meting out penalties against the offending media, for according to Mr Waruru, the most the council can do is to ask it to apologise. "The (Media) Act as it exists doesn't give the council much teeth," he laments.

The criminal justice system is inadequately equipped to deal with the problem of pornography, in spite of Section 181(1) of the Penal Code.

Lawyer Tom Onyango says that the law dates back to 1952, when some of the worst purveyors of obscenity, such as video kiosks, cybercafés, the Internet and the mobile phone were unheard of.

The law prohibits trade, distribution, public exhibition, production or possession of obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, films or any other obscene objects to corrupt morals.

The law as spelt out in the Penal Code is woefully wanting in acting as a deterrent to dissemination of pornography. It treats the offence as a misdemeanour which attracts a jail sentence of two years or a fine of Sh7,000 or both. Simple maths indicates that since Sh7,000 in 1952 was of much greater value than it today, the law needs to be amended to provide harsher penalties. Mr Onyango also points to the Sexual Offences Act. Cap 3 of 2006, which appears to be specifically aimed at protecting children. This law provides for sentences of not less than six years or a fine of not less than Sh500,000 or both. Subsequent offences against the Sexual Offences law attract imprisonment of not less than seven years without the option of a fine.

Section 15 of the Children's Act also aims at protecting children from exposure to obscene materials. Though these law are unanimous that dissemination of obscene material goes against the law, the policing side seems to be defunct.

Ms Wambui Kiai, the director of the University of Nairobi's School of Journalism, says research on pornography had not attracted any interest among her post-graduate students.

"We really need some studies on whether there is something people can do to help socialise children," she said. "We are not even discussing the impact of what pornography is doing to our children who are being left to TV and house-helps".

Her concern is echoed by the general manager of the Film Corporation of Kenya, Ms Ibha Shah, who says: "I've seen young people open the Internet to watch blue movies when their parents are asleep."

Part of the challenge facing parents is that children are technology-savvy and could be watching pornography on their parents' mobile phones even from the assumed safety of their living rooms.

While acknowledging difficulties in policing cyber cafés, for instance, Mr Onyango says it is the duty of the Media Council to deal with radio talk shows which he said "have gone overboard".

"They don't even care that parents could be travelling with their children taking them to school. At a personal level, it's terrible Profit is good, but at what price? There has to be a limit," he says.


According to Mr Waruru, the Media Council has been able to act on complaints by dealing directly with media owners in spite of limitations that the council faces.

Mr Waruru says forwarding letters of complaint to media houses tended to make media owners defensive.

"They involve their lawyers, and whenever lawyers are involved, we get bogged down in process," he said. "But if I call the CEO of the offending station and say, 'Just listen to what is going on now at your station,' they immediately switch off and apologise."

Direct engagement appears to be the only viable option left, Mr Waruru said, adding that there was a disconnect between what media owners want and programme presenters do.

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