While freedom of the press continues to struggle in Kenya, alternatives keep hope alive

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2021, let’s remember that 2020 was a terrible year for the press in many parts of the world.

Two ranking measures – the World Press Freedom Index 2021 and the publications of the African Media Barometer – show that journalists around the world continued to face numerous challenges. These included intimidation, physical or online harassment, surveillance, enforced disappearances, threats, arbitrary arrests, assaults and lack of access to public facilities, authorities or data.

Reporters Without Borders reported that 50 journalists from around the world died in the course of the service. Her death was linked to investigative stories of corruption, abuse of public funds, organized crime, and reporting of protests.

These attacks on freedom of the press came in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing problems.

Read more: How COVID-19 has worsened attacks on journalists in Kenya

The first COVID-19 case was announced in Kenya in March 2020. Around 600 journalists have been fired since then. Many have seen wage cuts, while others have seen long delays in paying their wages.

A September 2020 report published by Article 19, a human rights organization that promotes freedom of expression, indicated that at least 48 journalists had been attacked or prevented from working during the pandemic.

The various reports and rankings measure the degree of freedom that traditional journalists have in established media. They show that mainstream media houses are hardest hit by these challenges.

This has given other media workers the opportunity to report on news and create content. There is an emerging group of citizens, activists, experts and independent journalists who have become an alternative source of credible and useful information.

In these troubled times, this is refreshingly good news.

This year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day – Information as a Public Good – is an opportunity to recognize this wider range of voices.

Digital technologies

Digital technologies have provided relatively cheap and accessible platforms for citizens and activists to exchange ideas and present the views and perspectives of marginalized or non-elitist communities. These platforms include WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging websites.

Read more: New media voices tell Kenya’s COVID-19 stories – from the ground up

Though Kenya ranks 102nd out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, voices have surfaced in the digital space telling the truth to power without many of the documented restrictions that mainstream journalists face.

However, the audience takes on the burden of assessing the credibility of information that doesn’t necessarily go through traditional verification processes.

Experts broadcast talk shows on YouTube to analyze and analyze the political landscape without being limited to strictly government or official sources. Activists use social media to fight Kenya’s inefficient electricity suppliers.

Academics are using new media platforms to teach, debate, and interact with both academic and non-academic audiences.

And activists have created online databases to monitor Kenyan lawmakers, keep track of official documents, and monitor parliamentary proceedings and records.

Satirists, parodists and caricaturists were not left behind. They use digital media to share animations and cartoons that hold executives accountable. They also encourage citizens to get involved in governance issues. Environmental and civil society organizations use the global reach of websites to promote green energy locally.

Many of these voices do not seek to be as objective as the traditional press. They often have an agenda. Some of its goals include combating impunity or corruption, exposing injustices to the poor and the marginalized, promoting deeper citizenship engagement with governance, and building political understanding.

While not being apologetically on the agenda, they are dismantling the notion of traditional mass media – television, newspapers, and radio – as the primary or sole source of information for the common good.

Unique challenges

The newer voices may not be ranked journalists, but they also face particular challenges to their freedom of expression and expression.

Their voices and views are suppressed or restricted by legislation, disinformation and censorship campaigns, internet shutdowns, new tax regulations and restrictions on the generation of content and income from social media companies.

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Thus, despite the emergence of new voices in the digital space, Kenya is far from an ideal situation when it comes to freedom of the press.

On the way to more freedom

In general, the mainstream press should be able to operate independently, support itself financially, and share information for the service of society.

Its normative role – widely classified as non-profit – is often hampered by persistent political and economic systems that limit the independence of media houses and individual journalists. That is a disservice to the citizens.

The rankings help highlight the range of challenges that deny Kenyans the quality and unsullied information of traditional collectors and news anchors.

But the alternative voices also give hope that trustworthy information that serves the common good, regardless of the tactic used to muzzle, restrict, restrict or censure information, can still find its way to what matters most: the Citizens.

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