There are clear limits to media freedom

The recent concerns raised by the Media Council of Kenya about the Muliro Garden photos in the The Star newspaper point to a fundamental question on the issue of public interest and the respect for the code of conduct in media practice.

Weeks after pictures surfaced online showing persons in intimate positions at the public park in Kakamega Town, The Star newspaper ran one of the pictures. In an editorial responding to a barrage of public outrage, the paper defended its decision on the grounds that it wanted to instigate national debate on the issue.

Following publication of the photos in the daily, the media came under serious public scrutiny on its role in upholding ethical standards in its practice. The photo reminded us that ‘The Code of Conduct and Practice of Journalism in Kenya’ that the media fraternity developed a couple of years ago are not being adhered to in full.

While the Constitution gives media far reaching freedom, its places a caveat on this freedom. In Article 35 Section 5, the Constitution requires Parliament to create an independent body that shall “set media standards and regulate and monitor compliance with those standards.” That body already exists as the Media Council of Kenya, and The Code of Conduct is part of the Media Act 2008.

It is instructive to note that media scholars and practitioners are currently re-examing ‘The Code of Conduct’ in line with the Constitution and the new Media Bill scheduled for publication.

Indeed, as the photo reminded us about the ethics, it also raised other important questions: Which ethics? Who needs to be ethically conscious? And how will ethical standards be met?

Which ethics?

Journalism ethics is concerned with making sound moral decisions in journalistic performance and it assumes the presence of societal morality. Morality has to do with actions guided by generally acceptable human values and responsibilities. Compatible human values and responsibilities constitute a moral system.

A journalist should ask herself to whom his or her sense of duty is when writing a story, choosing words or deciding on the pictures to use. Is the duty owed to self, readers, audience, media houses, colleagues, or to society as a whole?

The answer to the question of what duties a journalist owes to self and to all other parties may itself have various permutations: respect for human dignity; respect for privacy; preservation of human life; not allowing other human beings to suffer unnecessarily because of our actions; maintaining human decency and good taste, among others.

The late journalism scholar Francis Kasoma, formerly of University of Zambia, said: “When journalists are aware that people know their unethical practices and can protest about them, they are likely to be more careful about how they practice their profession.”

But who should be ethically conscious? Unlike the traditional professions of law and medicine and others, journalism is uniquely a team profession. The reporter or the producer, the immediate supervising editor, the editor-in-chief or the director, the publisher or the station director, the printer or transmitting engineer and many more in between are all active participants in the journalistic process. Any of them can undo or improve on the other’s work with telling ethical effects.

While a lawyer’s or doctor’s ethical or unethical deed usually begins and ends with her or him, the same cannot be said of journalists. The personal acts of journalists have a way of affecting the whole team in one way or the other.

For example, when a reporter reports lies, it affects all journalists and not the reporter alone. From such incident, people start forming stereotypes about the profession, such as the idea that ‘journalists are liars or corrupt’. This is common in Kenya.

It is, therefore, the whole journalistic team, starting from the reporter up to the entire media house, that needs to be ethically conscious.

Likewise, the concern of moral journalism should not be restricted to journalists only. People—newsmakers and the media consumers alike—who are the real victims of unethical journalistic practice, should be conscious about ethical journalism. They have a broad moral duty to police the media because journalists derive their moral authority and existence from the public. We are the public’s watchdog.

It is the people who are adversely affected by unethical journalistic behaviour. The people can help to promote better journalistic morals by demonstrating that they are aware of, and take great exception to, unethical journalistic practices.

Ethical standards

How will the ethical standards be met? It has been pointed out that education in journalism ethics for both journalists and members of the public would help the conscience of journalists towards practicing ethical journalism.

What I feel lacking is that we have not indicated exactly how education and public pressure would encourage or in fact force journalists to have an ethical approach to their work.

And yet in most cases people have reduced journalism ethics to the study of codes of journalists’ conduct, an approach some scholars are uncomfortable with.

Dickson, in ‘Golden Mean of Journalism’ argues that equating journalism ethics with codes of conduct encourages ad hoc or situational ethics. She writes that:

Because such codes are at best normative guidelines based on no common moral philosophy, journalists tend to resort to situation by situation analyses of their ethical practices. The problem with a situational approach is that a journalist’s evaluation of his or her actions is always ad hoc in nature. Unfortunately, ad hoc evaluations based on situational ethics are insufficient to ensure that in the future journalists will act in a moral and responsible fashion.”

The other thing we have failed to do is focus on media managers as well when tackling ethical issues in the media. Journalists, who bear the brunt of unethical reporting, find it difficult, if not impossible, to apply ethical standards if they work under bosses who do not understand what journalism ethics is all about and have no intention of promoting it.

For now, the lessons the media houses must have learnt from this photo incident in The Star is that their audiences are increasingly becoming media literate and are going to hold the media accountable for any unethical practices.

The writer is the Executive Director of African Woman and Child Features

Who wants to Harm Standard Political Writer?

Friday morning March 18 found The Standard senior political writer Juma Kwayera seated at his desk doing a story. He was busy interviewing a source by telephone when his mobile phone rang. The number looked vaguely familiar, but he ignored the call. After the interview, Kwayera called the number.

The man who picked it up spoke in Kiswahili. Who did Kwayera think he was, writing that sort of stuff in the Standard, the man demanded angrily. He informed Kwayera that he had been hired to kill him. The journalist asked the man’s name. He said ‘John’ and declined to give his other names.

The ‘hired killer’ went on with his rant. He knew how to find Kwayera and the journalist shouldn’t even bother reporting to the police because it won’t be any help, he offered. Could ‘John’ please say what story he or whoever hired him was aggrieved about, Kwayera asked. The man only continued his threats and then abruptly cut the line.

Although he says was not scared, Kwayera could not take the call lightly. “I am not afraid. Only the guilty are afraid. I have done nothing wrong,” he told ET. The same day the threatening call came he recorded a statement at Nairobi’s Central Police Station. The journalist says he had previously received calls from strange four-digit numbers which are not in use in any telephone network in Kenya, such as 0025, 0026 and 0028.

“Someone calls you but when you answer he doesn’t talk. And when you call back the same number it doesn’t go through,” Kwayera said. Another odd thing had happened on the night before he received the call from ‘John’. The journalist was on his way home at around 10 PM when an acquaintance in the security forces called him seeking to know how Kwayera’s son was doing in school. Kwayera had not spoken with the man for a while. It struck him as strange that he could call at that time of the night just to ask about his son.

In early February, Kwayera had written about frantic efforts by a section of the Grand Coalition Government to convince the African Union to back efforts to get UN Security Council to pass a resolution deferring the International Criminal Court process against six suspected masterminds of the post-election violence. The Standard on Sunday report revealed that the PNU wing of the Coalition had procured the expertise of foreign lobbyists who, among other things, helped produce a gory one-sided video on the chaos that engulfed Kenya in 2007/8.

The video, the Standard reported, showed “how the Kenya delegation led by President Kibaki, top Government mandarins, and PNU stalwarts channeled the blame to the Orange Democratic Movement and its leader Raila Odinga, now the Prime Minister. The PNU show then zeroes in on the International Criminal Court and it’s Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo for equal bashing. So gripping was the video clip that a 10-minute break was called after the presentation,”. PNU and its allies had also secured the support of some civil society activists who picketed outside the OAU Summit in Addis Ababa calling for deferral of the ICC investigation.

After the story ran, Kwayera says he received a text message from a presidential aide describing him as “master of mischief.” He brushed aside the SMS. “I didn’t take him seriously. I took it as normal. You write a story and some people praise you while others hate you.” But when he got the call from ‘John’, he began to think twice.

It brought to his mind other equally unsettling incidents in the past. In October 2008, Kwayera had just finished a story whose gist was that the former ruling party KANU was on its deathbed. He was heading home when he received an anonymous call about the story. The caller admonished him to write balanced stories that gave equal opportunity to both sides.

The shocking thing was that the story was not yet published. How someone outside the newsroom got to know about it mystified Kwayera. When he took up the matter with his superior, he was promised an investigation – which never took place.

Kwayera believes the threats are meant to intimidate him to refrain from writing politically sensitive stories. “It is intimidation, so that you stay away from certain stories,” he says. Implementation of the new Constitution, he points out, has caused some rich and powerful people sleepless nights as the country is moving towards more accountability and integrity in public life. Many of those who are likely to fall foul of the supreme law do not want the media spotlight turned on them.

Last December, another journalist recorded a statement with the police claiming he had received threats after writing a story about Mkadara MP Gideon Mbuvi alias Sonko. Deo Omondi, Associate Editor at Express Media Group which publishes The Sunday Express, said Sonko and his aides threatened him after the journalist wrote a story about the legislator’s 1998 prison break.