Kenyan press face hostile work environment, study finds

The working environment for journalists and media workers in Kenya is increasingly hostile, with at least 91 percent of journalists at local media outlets having faced security threats in the course of their work, a new study has revealed. The harassment of and attacks against journalists, with nearly 40 percent coming from politicians, indicates a need for urgent attention from both state and non-state actors if press freedom is to be guaranteed in the country.

The study was called “Safety and protection of Kenyan journalists: Is it common sense or common cents?” and was commissioned by the Working Group on the Media and undertaken by my organization, the Media Council of Kenya. Released on May 2, 2013, to mark World Press Freedom Day, the study found that more than 70 percent of journalists in Kenya are dissatisfied with the level of safety and the security measures afforded to them by their media houses.

The study found that more than 50 percent of the 282 participating journalists had received threats more than once in their working life, which, according to the study, was “a confirmation that journalists are increasingly working in a hostile environment in Kenya.” At least 27 percent of the journalists said they receive several threats a month, while at least 62 percent said they have received at least one threat every month.

Threats against journalists in Kenya were mostly conducted through mobile phones–mostly text messages and phone calls. One journalist, James Wakahiu, said he started receiving threats after a story he had done on cases at the International Criminal Court. First, he said, they came in “short text messages via my phone, followed by an email to our newsroom.” Then, aggressors visited his offices several times, “threatening to bomb it.”

The study found that “not many of the respondents were satisfied with the response mechanisms for complaints,” and emphasized the urgent need for media houses to put in place safety and protection measures. The study also noted that security agencies in Kenya need to thoroughly investigate cases involving harassment and attacks against journalists.

Among the major challenges cited for journalists in Kenya are poor pay and inadequate working conditions; working under managers who are not trained journalists; and, in extreme cases, taking instructions from editors who maintain political alliances. The study found that journalists feel media outlets lack the commitment to not only investigate violations against their reporters, but to forestall such attacks. The participants also said they felt their complaints would not be adequately addressed because “most editors and employers were ranked very highly as sources of threats to journalists.”

The study’s findings suggest that there isn’t enough public and official awareness of the security concerns of media practitioners. This lack of awareness was reported among both journalists and non-journalists.

The study pointed to a gap between existing support initiatives and the journalists and media professionals’ practical needs and challenges. The available support mechanisms were found to be inadequate, ad hoc, and largely unknown to the majority of journalists who needed them. The existing support initiatives seemed to focus more on the upstream journalists who are employed full-time and cover big investigative stories.

Dr. Haron Mwangi, the CEO of the Media Council of Kenya, said the findings are valuable in the sense that they provide baseline information on the safety of journalists, which will form the basis of interventions that industry players can put in place. He said, “We have picked up some of the recommendations from the report and started implementing some at the council. We have already done some training on safety and protection for journalists, set up a safety fund, a hotline and Web-based alert system for journalists in distress in Kenya.”

It is important that with comprehensive intervention the media industry enhance the safety of journalists in Kenya. The study makes it apparent that stakeholders should develop a common charter and agree on a national protocol and safety and protection standards; develop a comprehensive national safety and protection training program; engage in public awareness activities on the issue; and mobilize resources to support the implementation of this national safety program.

If not, as the study found, “The concern is that if something is not done in time, the harassment of journalists will become the norm and lead to self-censorship and eventually thwart the spirit of media freedom and freedom of expression.”