Press freedom was explained by English poet John Milton in his text Areopagitica (1644), in reacting to a repressive ordinance established by Parliament in 1643. The ordinance required authors to get prior approval from an official licenser before the publication of printed materials. Thus, Milton stated regarding the impugned ordinance, “Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes, and standards.”
Press freedom and freedom of information indeed have a long history, tracing to Sweden’s legislation passed by Parliament on December 2, 1766, which is touted as the world’s law supporting freedom of information and press freedom. The year 2023 marks the thirtieth anniversary of World Press Freedom Day which was first proclaimed by the United Nations in 1993.
The rationale for press freedom has been explained invariably. The press is seen as a separate column, a center of power on behalf of the public against the agencies of power. The media as a facilitator of information flow and exchange of ideas enables democracy because it makes better democratic decision-making by government, as it improves transparency and accountability and thus allows citizens to make better decisions.
According to political scientist Bidisha Biswas, the press serves the role of ‘a watchdog of the society [monitoring] the activities of public administrations and other institutions and practices that directly and indirectly affect the public’.
It is against this background that we examine the recent attack on the media by politicians notably Mr. Moses Kuria, the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Trade and Industry, who has been in the spotlight lately for uncouth attacks on the media. Mr. Kuria, in a series of tweets and in a public meeting in Embu on 18th June 2023, trained his eyes on the media, going to the extent of threatening to fire any government official that advertises on Nation media platforms. The Cabinet Secretary, despite facing a court order barring him from making further derogatory remarks on the media, repeated his slurs, calling media persons ‘malaya’ (prostitutes).
The attacks on Nation Media and the media generally by Mr. Kuria happened after the spotlight was shone on his ministry over alleged corrupt dealings. The actions of Mr. Kuria are a slur to democracy and our democratic processes. Matters are made worse by Mr. Kuria’s disregard for court orders and repeating demeaning words against the media despite the existence of injunctive orders. This was a flipping of the bird. An act of showing the judiciary his middle finger and basically asking our constitutional order, “mta do?” (What will you do to me?).
Mr. Kuria, in his tantrums and recidivism, received backing from the highest levels of government. He was therefore fortified in his continued pissing on the Constitution.
To Mr. Kuria and his backers, ours is to remind them that the media enjoys a constitutional mandate and that the media has an institutional role in investigating and analysing public affairs as well as the actions of public figures on behalf of the public. The media shall and must continue with this role whether those in power like it or not. It is also important to remind those in public offices that the McCarthyist hangover of painting everyone in the binary hue of supporters and opponents is lame and simplistic. The onus is on those in public offices to deal with the issues spotlighted by the media. We also wish to remind those in public office that the Constitution was birthed in the context of strife and paid for in precious blood and sweat. The Kenyan public will not cede an inch of our hard-earned constitutional entitlements at the altar of what is convenient or pleasing to politicians or those in public office. Please do the right thing and respect the media.