Counties are increasingly becoming hostile working environments for Kenyan media workers, local journalists said on Friday as they marked World Press Freedom Day.
Several scribes and media managers have been attacked and others killed while doing their jobs in the devolved units.
Threats and attacks on journalists have been reported in counties including Homa Bay, Siaya, Trans Nzoia, Bungoma, Turkana, Kwale, Meru, Muranga, Uasin Gishu, Tana river, Mombasa, Baringo and West Pokot.
The Kenya Editors Guild and the Kenya Correspondents Association (KCA) said matters were worsening, with some county assemblies and governors’ offices becoming no-go zones for reporters.
KCA Chairman Oloo Janak noted that despite a robust media environment in Kenya, counties were becoming the leading spots for violation of press freedom, with officials, politicians and their supporters appearing to be increasing attacks on journalists, with impunity.
Mr Janak said a survey carried out with other media stakeholders revealed journalists were threatened and physical attacked for exposing corruption and other kind of rot in the regions.
“Officials and political hirelings and supporters appear to be increasing their attacks on journalists, with impunity, resulting in injuries and damage to their equipment,” he said in a statement.
“Over the past one year, there has been a worrying increase in the number of journalists facing threats, harassment and intimidation. There is also the emerging threat of digital security to journalists with a number being stalked or threatened online."
The KCA said this trend constitutes a grave threat to press freedom as well as the security of journalists.
The attacks, the lobby added, undermine journalists’ capacity to provide credible media reports on which citizens depend to make decisions and hold their leaders accountable.
Mr Janak called on "both the national and county governments to desist from any acts of intimidation, threats and attacks on journalists and demonstrate genuine commitment to upholding press freedom by creating the necessary facilitative climate for journalists to do their work".
He asked political leaders to respect and promote press freedom "as a corner stone for a free, democratic and stable society that we all desire Kenya to be, and as provided for in the Constitution".
“We call on relevant state agencies to always act with speed when cases of attacks or threats on journalists are reported. We also urge that the killings of two journalists, Francis Nyaruri and John Kituyi, be exhaustively investigated and those responsible prosecuted,” he said.
In January, Mr Johnson Nyakundi, who was working for Mwanyagetinge and Voice of Victory TV stations, was found dead in his house in Kisii. The autopsy report stated that he was strangled.
Mr Nyakundi was the second journalist to be killed in the county; Mr Nyaruri was found dead in Kodera Forest two weeks after he went missing on January 15, 2009.
His hands were bound, his eyes gouged out and his lower jaw broken.
In December 2018, an NTV reporter in Mt Elgon was attacked and injured by a chief from Sasur Location in Cheptais while covering a story on the alleged misuse of funds at a primary school.
On October 2, a Standard Group journalist's camera was destroyed after a police officer attacked him in Homa Bay.
Kenya Editors Guild chairman Churchill Otieno said Kenyan editors face four major threats: challenges in sustaining independent media practices; harassment and attacks; weaknesses in ethical practice and hindrances in legal and policy systems.
“The Government Advertising Agency was created under controversial circumstances as a clearing house for all public sector ads. Today, it has morphed into a master switch that can and has been abused,” he said in Naivasha.
“It arguably is the single-biggest threat to editorial independence and sustainability of the media.”
Mr Otieno challenged media managers to ensure government advertising drives development of the industry as opposed to being a "poisoned chalice".
“We must also mention commercial interests that seek to exploit the challenges in the media business to extract undue advantages. Their actions constitute an affront to media freedom as enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution,” he said.
The guild, he said, has taken steps to ensure all workers are safe in the newsroom, with a newsroom safety protocol developed under the Kenya Media Stakeholders Working Group.
On press attacks, Mr Otieno said that depending on the coverage the media accord events, journalists have invariably been seen as biased by sharply-divided political antagonists "too eager to blame us for any misfortunes their political camps suffer".
He said the guild has opened conversations with journalism schools to ensure their curriculum prepares students for realities in the industry.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru challenged media houses to embrace digital technologies and innovation.
Mr Mucheru noted that a recent survey by the Media Council of Kenya found that use of social media has rapidly overtaken all other form of dissemination of information and news.
“A total of 54 per cent of Kenyans currently use social media. This is a wake-up call for media houses to come up with innovate ways of using social media to their advantage,” he said.
“However, the media should be cautious of social media due to the risk of losing public trust as the advantages of the medium are as many as the risks. One of the risks is the high probability of fake news.”
World Press Freedom Day is marked every year on May 3, to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluate press freedom around the world and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
This year’s global celebration day is taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and is organised by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (nesco) in partnership with the African Union (AU) and the government of Ethiopia.