It was a sigh of relief when the National Assembly expunged Clause 34 of the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill (2014), which would have made it illegal for any person to “publish any false or scandalous libel on Parliament, its committees or its proceedings, or speak words defamatory of Parliament, its committees or its proceedings”. This came a day after the President – perhaps bowing to public pressure – during his Mashujaa Day address urged Members of Parliament to “re-look at the Media Bill and ensure it does not infringe on constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and media.”
Details of the infamous provisions have been well publicised.
It is ironic that the National Assembly, an oversight institution that demands accountability and transparency from State officers and institutions alike, would seek to institute laws to shield itself from the same. Although enshrined in the supreme law, institutionalising the national values and principles of governance remains a daunting task.
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These principles and values include “good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability”, and “…democracy and participation of the people”. They bind all State organs, State officers and all persons whenever they apply or interpret the Constitution, enact, apply or interpret any law, or makes or implements public policy decision. Maybe the honourable Members who supported the law with the contentious clause forgot to consult Article 10 of the Constitution.
Whereas media remains a major source of information on affairs of Parliament – both the National Assembly and the Senate – and government in general, it is yet to settle in its rightful place as situated in the Law. A major reason this is yet to happen is traceable to the discomfort that stems from the effects and outcomes of its watchdog role.
A look at the relationship between media and government from a historical perspective portrays what looks like a love-hate affair. It is one checkered by fights, but also moments of shared joys and triumphs. A free press is necessary for any country to flourish. But media, too, depend on government for business.
There is no doubt Kenya has made great gains in so far as securing the freedom of the press is concerned. The Constitution of gives express provisions to protect the media as an institution, a major improvement from the old order where press freedom stemmed from freedom of expression.
The milestones notwithstanding, the battle for a free press seems far from over. If anything, there have been various attempts to pass various pieces of legislations that negate the Constitution in this respect. Besides the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill (2014), you may recall the storm in late 2013 caused by the Kenya Information Communication (Amendment) Bill (KICA Bill) 2013 that sought to create a Communication and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal under the state-controlled Communication Authority.
There was also the National Security Laws Amendment Bill of 2014, which sought to introduce provisions that prohibited the broadcasting of any information, “which may undermine investigations or security operations relating to terrorism without authorisation from the National Police Service”.
Furthermore, it is in public domain that Parliament has its own share of issues to deal with. There have been allegations of bribery and extortion to conceal the very things the Houses of Parliament should be confronting, for instance. If some members, as it has been alleged variously, have the guts to engage in improprieties when media are free to report, then how much more impunity will thrive if freedom of media and the right of access to information are limited?
Media must at all times be given space to perform the watchdog role. It is necessary for media to speak truth to power for it is by doing so that abuse of governmental power will reduce. Exposure avails information to citizens and enhances public participation.
Addressing the subject of transparency in government, Joseph Stiglitz observes:
“Essentially, meaningful participation in democratic processes require informed participants. Secrecy reduces information available to the citizenry, hobbling people’s ability to participate meaningfully.”
We should, therefore, be all worried when Members of Parliament attempt to create laws that seek to limit media freedom or create immunity against public scrutiny.
Stiglitz further dispels the notion that public discussions will undermine the authority of public institutions, describing it as the “one of the most corrosive of democratic processes”. Effectively then, he argues, if government and public institutions made an effort to deal with the citizenry honestly, public confidence would increase.
Safeguarding freedom of the media and access to information must be everybody’s concern for only then can we ensure accountability and proper checks on government.