EDITORIAL: Press freedom is a fundamental right; honour it

Tuesday May 8 2018

Journalists in Kisii County, western Kenya, mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2018. PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NMG

Journalists in Kisii County, western Kenya, mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2018. PHOTO | BENSON MOMANYI | NMG 

By The EastAfrican
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This week, East Africa joined the international community in observing World Press Freedom Day 2018.

In Africa, the main event, headlined by Unesco, saw advocates of freedom of expression converge on Ghana’s capital Accra, to reflect on the day’s theme: Keeping power in check.

The theme could not have been more pertinent given the current threats media face, particularly in the region and, globally in general.

Besides legal challenges, the physical safety of journalists can no longer be guaranteed. The blurring of the line between official agents of the state and the unidentified actors who harm journalists and somehow get away with it, is of grave concern.

Across the region, the media continues to be under siege of both old and new laws whose sole aim is to limit the ability of journalists to hold power to account.

In some cases, a culture of high handedness has seen government officials act ultra vires, imposing sanctions on media outside the scope of the law.

The arbitrary shutting down of three TV stations in Kenya earlier this year — to black out the mock swearing-in of opposition leader Raila Odinga — is a study case. As this paper was going to press, news filtered through that Burundian authorities had banned the BBC and Voice of America from operating in the country for six months.

Across the region, governments have redoubled efforts to come up with new regulations to control the use of social media and the conduct of journalists.

In Uganda, all operators of online media sites and bloggers have been ordered to register with the Uganda Communications Commission.

Despite earlier progress in institutionalising media self-regulation, Rwanda has proposed a new regressive media law that criminalises defamation and sets steep fines for insulting the head of state.

Tanzania has suspended newspapers and jailed journalists for criticising the government. New rules require newspapers to register afresh. This and a proposal to bar unaccredited journalists from practising have also been opposed by civil society. Of equal concern is that most of the laws that seek to regulate the conduct of media are largely vague and scattered across the penal code.

Journalists in South Sudan are living a nightmare, caught between a repressive state and a general breakdown in law and order.

Little wonder therefore that East Africa makes for a dismal showing in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

Tanzania, the best performer is ranked 93rd out of the 180 countries surveyed, Kenya is at 96 while Uganda slid five places to 117. South Sudan is 144th while Rwanda is a distant 156.

Media rights fall within the broader rights to freedom of expression. Although the media cannot operate without restraints, these need to be reasonable and conceived in public matters.

Laws regulating a fundamental right should be informed by a desire to facilitate rather than limit the enjoyment of that right. For as long as governments remain bent on control and curtailment, one can expect a drawn out standoff between them and citizens.