GUEST COMMENTARY: World Press Freedom Day necessary for nations without a free press

Friday, April 30, 2010 | 6:13 p.m. CDT; updated 10:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Can you imagine switching on your television set one morning to see a live broadcast of the first lady, surrounded by armed bodyguards holding the newsroom of a major U.S. newspaper hostage?

That's exactly what many Kenyans watched unfold at the hands of the African nation's first lady, Lucy Kibaki.

Exactly five years ago on May 3 — World Press Freedom Day — Kenyans woke up to  television images of a visibly agitated and combative first lady in the newsroom of east and central Africa’s largest media organization, the Nation Media Group.

She was protesting against what she termed “unfavorable” coverage of the first family after Nation Media published a story about an alleged altercation the first lady had with her neighbor.

The incident came as a shock and drew wide condemnation from Kenyans who were just beginning to believe their country had broken from a dark history of blatant, state-sponsored crackdowns on media organizations that were common during the single-party rule that ended in the early 1990s.

The episode turned out to be a precursor to what can now be termed as an uneasy relationship between the Kenyan media and the political establishment.

In March 2006, almost one year after Lucy Kibaki’s shocker, another bolt from the blue hit Kenya’s second-largest media organization, The Standard Group.

Hooded thugs raided The Standard Group's TV news station, turned off its transmission signals, carted away computers and other equipment and subsequently burned thousands of copies of the next day’s newspapers that were running off the press.

A few days later, then Internal Security Minister John Michuki termed the incident “a government operation” that was done for undisclosed national security reasons, and he infamously quipped that “if you rattle a snake, you should be ready to be bitten by it.”

Michuki later said state intelligence agencies believed The Standard Group was preparing to publish “damaging” stories about the first family, and this prompted the pre-emptive raid.

But that was not the end of the government affront on media freedoms in Kenya.

Last year, the country’s fourth estate marked World Press Freedom Day under a  cloud of uncertainty after the state pushed through Parliament a new law that would, among other things, give the state powers to raid, confiscate equipment and close broadcast stations.

Numerous protests and a sustained, coordinated editorial campaign to reverse the new law brought the government and media owners to the negotiating table and yielded half-hearted promises to amend the act from the attorney general.

The attorney general later put into motion piecemeal amendments. But as the world marks World Press Freedom Day on Monday, Kenyans will be awake to the reality that the state could still use sections of this draconian law to randomly intimidate journalists and media organizations.

It is not just a Kenyan thing. Similar efforts to muzzle the media continue to pop up across Africa and other developing countries where, ironically, the media still has the biggest role to play in holding government accountable.

In early April, Julius Malema, president of South Africa’s ANC Youth League, called a BBC correspondent a “bastard” and a “bloody agent” before asking his security personnel to “get rid of this thing.”

The African National Congress is the ruling party in Africa’s largest economy, and Malema was agitated by the journalist’s line of questioning at a news conference in which he addressed issues of injustices against South African youths.

South African President Jacob Zuma rightly condemned Malema’s actions, which the country’s Professional Journalists’ Association described as an “attempt to intimidate the media, to prevent them from asking uncomfortable questions.”

The Press Association of Zambia also spent considerable time last year fighting the arrest and intimidation of journalists by the state.

The Egyptian government still owns controlling shares in the country’s mainstream media organizations, and accusations of state meddling in editorial independence are common. 

The environment that different media in African countries and other developing states operate is diverse but has a common thread — the strong desire by politicians to suppress media freedom.

World Press Freedom Day presents an opportunity to face the “powers that be” and declare a collective, unwavering commitment to protecting freedom of the press.

Washington Gikunju, a business journalist in Nairobi, Kenya, with the Nation Media Group, is in the U.S. on an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. He is currently reporting for the Missourian.

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