Can there be media freedom where State House wants to control thought?

There can be no media freedom where State House feels it should control thought.

Saturday March 19 2016

Kenyan journalists covering a press conference in Nairobi. I have no doubt in my mind that the defence of media freedom ranks among those critical values that any columnist worth the name must defend. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kenyan journalists covering a press conference in Nairobi. I have no doubt in my mind that the defence of media freedom ranks among those critical values that any columnist worth the name must defend. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By GODWIN MURUNGA
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This month represents my third year as a columnist for the Saturday Nation.

In these three years, I have written slightly over 150 pieces. Of these, the editor rejected two.

The first of this was a column on Kenya Airways in which I expressed frustration with the airline’s way of handling passengers.

The piece was judged too personal and therefore not published. The second one was on Sam Shollei; in it I urged the need to distinguish personal from official domains and argued that Mr Shollei was abusing his position for personal family interests.

I would have protested the decision of the editor not to publish the second piece. I did not. Instead, I accepted the editor’s judgement even though I disagreed with it.

Overall, the idea that as a columnist, I am allowed space to express my views freely and without censorship has been respected.

With the exception of the Shollei piece, I have not found a major reason to complain of undue interference. This, however, does not mean that some form of censorship has not been an issue.

CENSORSHIP

Three sources of censorship have reared their ugly heads in my three years experience.

The first is constituted in the unwritten rules that you soon learn to conform to as a columnist.

For instance, newspapers frown at criticisms of fellow columnists or other media personalities.

Also, as a columnist, you quickly learn that though your freedom is asserted, the editor will edit out certain names or reframe specific sentences to hide or make vague the identity of some persons or institutions you critically engage.

After several instances of editing specific names out, you quickly understand the drill and do it before you submit.

Second, responses from readers either encourage you to soldier on or undermine your confidence in what to write about.

In a context full of ethnic and racial bigotry and religious and gendered intolerance, the challenge has largely come from bigoted Kenyans.

It is worse if you are female and not identified as belonging to Kenya’s so-called indigenous tribes, whatever that means.

Only this week, our colleague in the Daily Nation received hateful e-mails in response to her column which contained unprintable abuses to her person.

Such abuse, often couched in poor grammar and pitiable spelling, hurts the soul.

But it is the experience of every columnist who is forthright, takes firm positions and articulates them consistently and vigorously.

Three, the most vitriol has come from Jubilee supporters.

Even that e-mail to a fellow columnist referred to above was from an alleged Jubilee supporter representing himself as defending Uhuru Kenyatta.

MEDIA FREEDOM

The abuses notwithstanding, most of such vitriolic responses also represent the position of State House.

It is, after all, not so long ago that the Public Editor confirmed that State House had been complaining about some columnists and the names were listed.

There can be no media freedom where State House feels it should control thought.

The question is this: To what extent are editors willing to conform to demands from the State House? What diverse pressures do they have to contend with in executing their mandate?

It is not a secret that there is huge public interest in how newspapers handle the diverse pressures placed on them.

This is particularly the case for the Nation Media Group whose image as a free and fair media house has been avidly debated in recent times.

Indeed, even columnists have come under pressure to take a position in solidarity with media freedom.

I think that the public dialogue is healthy and necessary and should not be deflected in a way that does not enable robust debate.

But above everything else, I have no doubt in my mind that the defence of media freedom ranks among those critical values that any columnist worth the name must defend.

Godwin R. Murunga is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi

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