The most frightening thing about press freedom today is not that journalists are under threat of persecution and even death; it’s that the public might lose sense of why it is important to have a free press, in the first place.
The feedback I get on social media in the main suggests that Kenyans, especially young people, don’t have a clear concept of what the media do and the sacrifices it entails to be an honourable and effective journalist.
As we speak, many journalists have lost their lives, others are in prison, while others live in terror because of the work they do on behalf of their country.
Memories are still fresh about the horrific killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said to have been killed and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was critical of the Saudi government, which is not very tolerant of views other than the most obsequious flattery.
Our colleague, Azory Gwanda from Tanzania, disappeared without trace in 2017. Gwanda was an investigative reporter and we live in hope that he will be found alive and well.
The job of journalists, as many millennials seem to believe, is not to eat bribes and report uncritically everything that politicians say.
Here is the truth: In a democracy, all power belongs to the people. But because everyone cannot be in government and there are many things that need to be done for the good of society — such as doctoring, teaching, soldiering, farming and so on — the job of running the country is delegated to a few people who are supposed to act on behalf of and in the interest of the people and the larger good.
Leaders, like all rulers, will not do the right thing out of the goodness of their heart.
Somebody has to keep an eye on them and inform the people when they start acting funny.
So, journalists have the hard job of finding out the bad things that leaders do and informing the people so that the bad leaders can be sacked at the next election.
Journalists also find out the good things that good leaders do, commend them and assure them of employment at the next election.
That’s the boiled down version. But politicians, being crafty and selfish, do everything possible to remove the watchdog so that they can act in ways that are against the interests of the people.
Donald Trump, who demonises journalists in dramatic ways, whoever it is that killed Jamal Khashoggi and the bureaucrats who deny the free press advertising, are all in that game.
True, journalists too are not all angels. There are those who will enter into inappropriate relations with politicians and mislead the people.
Others may not have the skills, energy or discipline to do their job right. Whatever the case, democracy is rarely perfect. But that does not mean that we settle for anything less.
The government of Kenya is generally intolerant and seeks to control the media many times by arguing that journalists are irresponsible and a danger to the public interest.
The government will resort to tactics such as unjustified closure of TV stations and the withholding of advertising to bend the media to its will.
But even with all that, Kenya is among the top 100 best countries in which to practice journalism, way better than China, Cuba, Cameroon, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where there is virtually no room for an honest media.
It would be so easy to do much better with better understanding between the various actors.
I have known the terror of repression. On my first job at the Nairobi Law Monthly, whose editor had recently been released from detention-without-trial — in those days the President could send you to prison, for as long as he liked, without the inconvenience of taking you before a judge — I don’t know where we found the courage to take on the Moi regime the way we did.
But I believe it is because of the courage of journalists such as Gitobu Imanyara, Bedan Mbugua, Wahome Mutahi, Pius Nyamora and many others, that we are now ranked number 100 out of 180 countries as a country with press freedom, ahead of Brazil, Mexico, Russia and even India.
As editor of The Standard in 2003, I also came to understand what it is to be targeted after Narc swept into our offices, arrested our Chief Executive Officer Tom Mshindi and other worthies over some story or other.
On another occasion, Kamau Ngotho, ever the cheeky investigative reporter, dug up some dirt on some powerful figure and there was an attempt to charge him with criminal libel.
It took a whole conspiracy, involving then Director of Public Prosecutions Philip Murgor, human rights activist Maina Kiai and many others to keep Kamau free.
We surrendered him to a magistrate at the High Court covertly and sought pre-emptive bail, and Mr Murgor, the Lord bless his heart, killed the case arguing that the Attorney-General, at that time Mr Amos Wako, who was always travelling, had no wish to enforce the criminal libel statute and that libel was a civil matter which ought to be canvassed as such.
Press freedom, like all freedoms, is of course, not given on a platter, it must be won in a conflict with those who wish to take away.
And as we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, my hope is that Kenyans see the value of a free press and support our journalists.
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