President Kenyatta on Friday accused journalists of breaching their professional code of conduct by writing damaging stories and headlines.
He reminded journalists that they had no absolute freedom over what they published or broadcast.
The Head of State said the government would use its powers to defend those who could not protect themselves against the media.
“It is your job as journalists to check your facts, and after you have checked, to check again. It is your job as journalists to know what the law requires and to observe its demands. It is your job always to keep by your side your own code of conduct and to refer to it before your story is written,” he told journalists at Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi during a regional convention organised by the Media Council of Kenya as part of preparations for the World Press Freedom Day celebrations on Saturday.
Mr Kenyatta did not have kind words for journalists who overstepped their freedom by failing to check facts of their stories damaging or reflecting people in a negative way.
“Where you fail in your duties to yourselves, your profession and your countrymen, then the State must and will defend those who have no other way of protecting themselves. We will understand each other better if I offer examples of what I mean.”
He cited a story published by the Standard Media Group early last month claiming the government had spent Sh100 million on a Cabinet retreat meant to come up with ways of addressing the huge public service wage bill. He also quoted a story by the Sunday Nation in December last year alleging that he had secretly and unlawfully extended the term of the Chief of Kenya’s Defence Forces Julius Karangi.
The stories “were wholly without foundation and had the potential to harm the public welfare. The falsehoods could have been avoided by a little more diligence and care on your part. I trust you will take the advice to heart.
“There is no room here for a freedom of the press that does not come with an equal challenge for the media to be responsible,” the President said pointing out that the country and Africa, could not afford unqualified journalists or those who did not observe the highest ethical standards of the profession.
He, however, appreciated the energy and creativity used in developing some TV programmes like XYZ Show and Bulls Eyes among others, which he said he had enjoyed watching over the years.
He also said he was aware of the difficulties involved in the work of a journalist. “We realise, also, that you are as keen as we are to serve the public interest. But in the instances I have mentioned, you will concede that you fell below the high standard you have already attained.”
President Kenyatta at the same time defended his government against accusations of gagging the media, saying he had lived up to the Constitution by setting up regulations in the media industry.
Information Cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i, had earlier presented a video show of the newspapers headlines and photos, which he said were not only offensive and unethical but illegal.
Stakeholders in the media industry, however, were concerned with the Kenya’s Editors’ Guild chairman Macharia Gaitho said his association disagreed with the President and accused him of unfairly attacking the media.
“His attack was extreme as he only picked two or three mistakes, which do not reflect what Kenya’s media stand for,” Mr Gaitho said.
The director of Article 19 Eastern Africa, Mr Henry Maina, said Kenyans, including journalists, had difficulties accessing information from the government, leading to inaccuracies especially when dealing with figures.
“What the President should do is to ensure Parliament passes the access to information law because if it is there the money used during the Cabinet retreat would have been made public,” Mr Maina said.
Kenya Union of Journalists’ secretary general Jared Obuya said media freedom was enshrined in the Constitution and no one could take it away.
He said the media had mechanisms to regulate themselves and asked the government to keep off. “We will regulate the media as happens in developed countries. The media do not need punitive laws but corrective ones.”
Law Society of Kenya chairman Eric Mutua echoed Mr Obuya’s remarks, saying media freedom in Kenya was guaranteed by the Constitution and could not be curtailed.
“There are laws to guide the media and if anyone is aggrieved by what they publish or broadcast can seek legal redress,” said Mr Mutua.
During the official opening of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 43rd world congress in Cape Town, South Africa recently, Mr Kenyatta was criticised for signing into law legislation giving the State avenues to decide what journalists report.
The President however, asked the media to partner with the government by broadcasting, as a service to the public, educational messages on HIV/Aids.