Kenya: Covid, Shrinking Freedoms Overshadow World Press Freedom Day

(File photo).

The Covid-19 pandemic and the shrinking press freedom is today set to overshadow this year's World Press Freedom Day, whose theme is "Information for Good."

The East Africa Editors Society will lead journalists from the region in marking the day.

The United Kingdom Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, will be the keynote speaker in the event that will be held virtually.

The World Press Freedom Day is marked on May 3 every year. While the constitution and the various laws governing respective East African states guarantee speech and media freedom, critics say the enjoyment of these rights is mostly dependent on the political establishment and economic environment of the day.

A number of Kenyan journalists have, for instance, suffered arrests and intimidation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The police have been accused of launching tear gas towards journalists, damaging their equipment or even arresting some.

Assaulted by police

In March last year, police in Mombasa assaulted NTV journalist Peter Maina while he was reporting on the excessive use of force by the officers enforcing the Covid-19 containment measures.

Mr George Muriithi of Weru TV would two days later be assaulted by police while filming them violently enforcing social distancing in Meru County. Three journalists were also arrested on the same day for allegedly flouting Covid-19 containment measures.

At end of April 2021, seven journalists were assaulted and arrested while covering the Tana and Athi River Development Authority (TARDA) demolitions in Mbeere, Embu County, despite identifying themselves to the police officers.

Covid-19 adds to journalists' list of woes. The pandemic has also affected media revenues and led to layoffs.

"Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs coupled with salary cuts. The situation is worse for correspondents who completely lost the opportunity to be contributing and hence no pay," says Merciline Nyambala, Executive Director of Association of Media Women in Kenya.

MCK estimates that two-thirds of staff and freelance journalists have either suffered pay cuts or lost their jobs.

Corruption scandals

The media has, however, remained at the centre of unearthing corruption scandals, such as the multibillion-shilling tenders saga involving the supply of Covid-19 kits to the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa).

This year's World Press Freedom Day event will be attended by the Nation Media Group CEO Stephen Gitagama, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) director, Addis Ababa, liaison officer, Dr Yumiko Yokozeki, Dr Peter Mwesige, the co-founder of Africa Centre for Media Excellence and Muthoki Mumo, the regional programmes officer for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Kenya Editors' Guild president Churchill Otieno and Mugambi Kiai, the Article 19 Eastern Africa director, will also grace the event.

"As the region reflects on media, our burden is shared globally. The world has resolved to focus on economic viability of news media, the transparency of internet companies and enhanced media and information literacy that enable people to value, defend and demand journalism as a vital part of information as a public good," said Mr Otieno.

Since April 29, 2021, the East Africa Editors Society has been holding regional consultations with editors, journalists and media stakeholders from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Comoros, Seycheles, Mauritius, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya on how to strengthen media freedom in the region.

The activities were spearheaded by the ad hoc committee of the East Africa Editors' Society, whose members include Mr Otieno (KEG President), Daniel Kalinaki (Uganda), Deodatus Balile (Tanzania) and Bruh Yihumbelay, the Vice chairperson, Editors Guild of Ethiopia.

Issues including the influence of the pandemic on the practice of journalism in East Africa and strides made in press freedom in the past one year are set to dominate the conversations in the commemoration. The virtual event will kick off at 8 am.

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