The onset of COVID-19 containment measures by the Government of Kenya upon the declaration of the virus as a pandemic in March 2019 and related media industry response to deal with the effects saw an increased violation of press freedom and access to information.
Hopefully, as the world marks the World Press Freedom Day this year, stakeholders will note this and propose measures to deal with the issue. We cannot continue behaving as if nothing happened and should talk about these and what remedial action should be taken against the perpetrators.
In addition to the impact of government-imposed measures such as work from home, social distance, use of protective gear among others, the media industry through individual media houses introduced measures aimed at both cutting down costs for doing business and in line with public health measures, to ensure the protection of staff, which influenced press freedom. Several media houses sacked journalists, reduced staff numbers, asked staff to work from home, reduced staff salaries and related allowances while in some cases, several journalists became infected or affected by the pandemic including being sent into isolation centres, getting ill and reported deaths, and or family members being infected.
Just as in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had tremendous impact on the media including, reduced revenues, increased operational costs, mass sackings among others. In Kenya, most media houses were forced to effect up to 50 per cent pay cuts. Leading media outlets in Kenya including the Nation Media Group, Standard Group, Royal Media Services, Capital FM among others reduced their workforce or cut staff salaries among other drastic measures.
According to a report released last week by the International Peace Institute, the state of press freedom globally has gone down, as some governments are including sweeping media control measures alongside COVID-19 regulations. The report cited Africa as among regions where increased arrests, censorship and physical attacks have escalated during the COVID-19 crisis. Kenya is not listed in the extreme brackets but not to say that all is flowing smooth. All mainstream media houses have resorted to salary cuts for staff, which has become a global trend due to the economic crunch. However, the least that could be asked of media houses, on this auspicious occasion, is to guarantee job remain intact even as the whole world waits out the passing of the Corona Virus devastation.
The Media Council of Kenya commissioned a study that established increased press freedom violations, loss of jobs, safety concerns including stress and trauma, closure of media outlets and more importantly, increased innovations and creativity by individual journalists and media houses
The economic downturn resulting from the COVID 19 crisis has brought investments in advertising to a screening halt. The disruption has hit private broadcasters hard since they depend almost entirely on advertisement revenues. While there is scant information about the exact figures for financial losses occasioned by the pandemic, industry estimates suggest that advertising revenues may have gone down big time.
All major broadcasters announced salary reductions ranging from 5 to 50 per cent in the first quarter of 2020. Nation Media Group, the Standard Group plc, radio Africa Group, Royal Media Services and Mediamax Ltd, all imposed pay cuts attributing it to the COVID 19 disruptions. In addition, all the above media houses declared redundancies in an attempt to remain afloat in the face of falling revenues and rising operation costs. In addition to the effects in the economic realm, and work-related such as access to information and movement past curfew hours, journalists, and media practitioners were exposed to the daily risks of infection in the line of duty as they sought to cover the pandemic.
Attacks and harassment of journalists violate several Constitutional provisions in Kenya including, Articles25 (freedom from torture and degrading treatment), 28 (freedom to be treated with dignity) 29 (freedom to security) 33 (freedom of expression), 34 (media freedoms), 35 (Access to information and 41 (on labour rights). Nationally, the harassment of journalists violates several Constitutional provisions including, Articles25 (freedom from torture and degrading treatment), 28 (freedom to be treated with dignity) 29 (freedom to security) 33 (freedom of expression), 34 (media freedoms), 35 (Access to information and 41 (on labour rights).
As we mark this day, I remember the many declarations stakeholders have made towards dealing with the menace including the UN Action Plan on safety and Impunity against journalists, the Nairobi, Arusha and Addis Ababa declarations, national mechanisms on safety and protection of journalists, several workshops and endless talks about the safety of journalists. Nice speeches, international travels and competition among players in the industry. Interesting that a statement by former editors chairperson Linus Kaikai on attacks on the industry still remains relevant and remembered more than any other relevant interventions on the safety of journalists by the industry.