We spoke with Patience Nyange, a council member of the Media Council of Kenya, about the situation for journalists in Kenya.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the media freedom challenges in and beyond Africa. On a scale of 1 to 10, how good is the working environment for journalists in Kenya and why?
I think I would give it a score slightly higher than half. I would say 6 out of ten. The media in Kenya operates and enjoys significant freedom of expression thanks to the constitution that we have now as compared to their counterparts in the east African region. However, a lot needs to be done to promote a better working environment for journalists in Kenya. So far a lot of attacks on journalists have been perpetrated by security officers. There have been a number of cases in which journalists in the field, in line of duty, have been attacked for the work that they do. They have had their equipment destroyed. Others have been clobbered in the middle of a story as they try to reach for better shots.
Attacks on journalists in the line of duty is a violation of press freedom and human rights and all this is done with the aim to silence journalists from questioning government and whistle-blowers on issues affecting the public.
I must say that there is a need for goodwill from the government and security agencies to work harmoniously with the media for the good of the citizens. Ideally, the work of the media is to keep the public informed. Sometimes of course, they will poke holes into what is being done by government officials but it does not intend harm. They need to take their accountability (watchdog) role keenly and this may not favour the government or persons working in various government institutions.
At the same time, many journalists lack facilitation of adequate protective equipment while in the field. This exposes them to the risk of acquiring the virus as you understand they don’t just work in the offices. A number of journalists have to go out of their houses to attend briefings and sometimes go to different parts of the country, consistently engaging with other journalists. So there is a higher risk to contract the virus based on their interaction with other people.
Are there any lessons that the media can pick up from this pandemic?
This is a new situation that we find ourselves in. We have not been here before, so there is no manual for this. All of us are just trying to manage to stay alive through the pandemic. There is a need for crisis preparedness by the media sector: Capacity building for journalists on how to cover and handle this from relevant media experts, as well as medical experts, and access of information for journalists from government and officials managing the pandemic is key for journalists – this will help journalists provide comprehensive information and education to the public. This is how I look at it: Journalists are at this time playing a key role as intermediaries between the government and the people. [They are doing] a lot of synthesising of information coming from the government to ensure the right information gets to citizens.
So, we have to applaud journalists and encourage them to be able to provide this key service to ensure citizens are informed and are knowledgeable on what needs to be done, especially on precautionary measures during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Another thing would be setting up crisis kitty funds to help journalists respond in a better coordinated and timely manner. I think this because many journalists have found themselves in situations where they are not prepared. How do we cater for our families? How do we cater for ourselves? How do we ensure we have protective gear not just for us but for our family members? These are extra expenses. Setting aside an emergency kitty either by media houses or by journalists themselves to be able to cushion journalists during a pandemic [is something we should consider]. This situation gives us an opportunity to brainstorm about the future: What we can do should we again find ourselves in a situation like CPVID-19?
Are there any measures that have been put in place by the Media Council of Kenya towards ensuring the safety of journalists?
The council has responded to a number of cases of attack on journalists and has forwarded these cases to relevant institutions including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP). Some of the cases have been dealt with by the National Police Service and of course the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). In some cases, letters have been written to the police, and psychosocial and compassionate support has been provided to those who needed it.
There were journalists in Kilif who needed support as they were going through quarantine and some of them have gone through traumatic situations. The media council has been in the forefront of ensuring they find help.
The media council has also ensured that there is a special card for journalists during this time and established a media sector response team. Out of that, there is an ongoing conversation to ensure that journalists are able to do their work without being limited by curfews and travel restrictions.
Very importantly, the media council of Kenya rolled out a health reporting grant as well as a mentorship programme in April for journalists. The purpose of the grant was to facilitate and support journalists producing health stories around COVID-19. The media council is looking to help journalists produce in-depth stories at a time when media organizations are cutting back their budgets.
What would be your advice or caution to journalists who are out there covering the pandemic?
First, COVID-19 is real and no journalist is immune to it. So they should take necessary caution. By doing so, they will also be taking care of the lives of their families and the people they interact with.
Being frontline workers, they should also be the people to first comply with the guidelines that have been given, like social distancing. Sometimes I have seen them in press briefings and you can see clearly that they are not observing the rules as stipulated on distancing.
Any further thoughts?
I think as journalists and media organization [representatives], there is an important conversation that we must have now. That is – beyond COVID-19. Are there lessons that we can learn to improve the industry that we serve in, to move forward and to cushion ourselves from the effects of COVD-19?
What immediately comes to mind is how we have managed to work from home, to attend virtual meetings, to social distance while still being able to manage ourselves. Is it time for media houses to start reviewing guidelines that say you have to be in the office at this particular time, etc. Is it possible for us to start working more from home? I imagine that a media house that had say 3000 employees may have made it through this time with just one thousand of those.
The question is: how do we make ourselves indispensable as journalists? For upcoming journalists, they really have to think through what it is that they can do to make themselves indispensable to an organization.
Are you going to report and only report, or will you report and also do online pieces? Is it time to consider to report for example in English and Swahili? As a journalist or broadcaster, you really need to start looking at yourself for those other talents or those things that you perhaps have taken for granted. Because a time is coming when media owners are going to say ‘we are employing only people that have XYZ talents.’ I think we need to look at the lessons of the pandemic and ask ourselves as journalists how we can make those lessons work for us.