Apology to Kibaki raises questions on privacy rights for ordinary mortals
The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya provides that the public’s right to know should be weighed against the privacy rights of people in the news.
Journalists, the code further states, “should stick to the issues” and intrusion and inquiries into an individual’s private life without the person’s consent are not generally acceptable unless public interest is involved.
The code, which is part of the laws of Kenya as contained in the Media Act, does not define what public interest is. But it goes on to say: “Public interest should itself be legitimate and not merely prurient or morbid curiosity.”
This provision of the code quickly comes to mind when you read the apology to President Kibaki published by The Standard on Tuesday this week.
The apology follows the publication the day before of a close-up picture of President Kibaki weeping at the funeral of Orwa Ojodeh, who perished in the helicopter crash on June 10.
The Standard apologised for “any embarrassment caused as it was not intended but was only aimed at showing the overwhelming emotion of a grieving nation”. The apology was published at the bottom of page 9. You’re forgiven if you missed it.
While the Media Act, Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act of 2009, and the Constitution guarantee the right to privacy, the media routinely ignore this right, especially when it comes to private grief or shock, sexual assault, violent death, marital misfortunes and other misfortunes.
Privacy is what the US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously described as “the right to be left alone” and the Privacy Journal calls “the desire by each of us for physical space where we can be free of interruption, intrusion, embarrassment, or accountability”.
Everyone, regardless of whether they are a public figure or not, needs privacy. It is fundamental to our dignity, human rights and freedom. When the media take it away we are left naked.
The media often take away the right in a cavalier fashion. Remember, just to mention two examples, that day in March 2004 when Kiss FM devoted a whole breakfast show dissecting the private life of Martha Karua?
Remember that day in October 2009 when Daniel Gichia and Charles Ngengi got married in London and the media intruded into the privacy of their families in Murang’a as if they were a party to the homosexual marriage?
It is even worse when more ordinary mortals are involved. Remember that day in October 2009 when the Daily Nation published a story with the headline “Woman’s swollen stomach a reminder of rape by police”?
The story carried a picture of not only the raped woman but also of her nine-year-old daughter, in complete violation of privacy rights and media ethics.
But the problem is much bigger than media transgressions. Most of our people do not know that they have any privacy rights. So they do not get the media to account.
An American anthropologist, Prof Edward Hall, in his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension, developed the theory of proxemics (the study of how people use space and distance to communicate), which is an integral part of privacy.
He argued that human perceptions of space are moulded and patterned by culture.
He theorised on the personal spaces that people form around their bodies. Entry into the intimate space — the closest “bubble” of space surrounding a person — is acceptable only for the closest friends and intimates, such as family members.
The next space, the social space, is for conducting routine social interactions with acquaintances as well as strangers. The public space is for impersonal and relatively anonymous communication.
These spaces vary widely depending on culture. In the United States, for example, intimate space is roughly 0-18 inches and personal space is 18 inches-4 feet.
In Africa, the distances apparently are much less. Our concept of privacy does not seem to be as well developed as that of Westerners. We are not as preoccupied with privacy as they are. Still, that is no reason for the media to take advantage.