The working environment for media in Kenya just as in the rest of the world is changing and new demands emerging on journalists and media in general to be professional and accountable. Even outside current focus on media preparedness ahead of the 2022 General Election, stakeholders agree that we need to undertake media reforms including in-house re organization to ensure we have a media system that strengthen the defence of media freedom and watchdog role, enhance independence, build the capacity of the media to speak and represent public interest agenda and have a regulatory framework that cultivates professionalism accountability.
Among the most trusted and tested in -house way of media dealing with concerns and complaints for the public is establishing strong and functioning public editors. For elections, most of the media outlets will be establishing election coordinating desks- which are very temporary. Public editors are a sure way of showing the media is ready for receiving not only feedback and criticism, but more importantly, it’s ready for public scrutiny and responding to such other complains. Public editors by way of responding, will help in educating the public how media operates, decisions are made and related media information literacy.
The Daily Nation has done it through Peter Mwaura, The Star through Kodi Barth and Francis Openda and one time The Standard through Joseph Bundotich with some measure of success. Globally public editors or ombudsmen are very strong establishments in major media outlets and have proved critical players alongside national regulators such as media or press councils.
Public editors allow the public to walk the journey of decision making in the news gathering process and what the journalists go through in their editorial discretion work. They take the readers, viewers, and listeners into the newsroom which works to improve the credibility and trust in the media. Media is a very trusted institution in Kenya because it has a responsibility to inform the public on matters that affect their lives.
Experience from the Complaints Commission at the Media Council of Kenya shows that many of the people filling complaints against the media is not necessarily because they want monetary compensation- but are angry with the media for professional misconduct and would want a chance to give them facts and feedback on their face. In fact, many of the cases are taking the mediation way, because once the complainants get to talk to the editors and reporters about a particular story, they were victims, they tend to get satisfied. Thus, media outlets should have functioning public editors, where the public can complain and cool off their anger, it might serve to reduce official and or legal suits against the media.
Public criticism about the media and its content is not unique to Kenya. But while the debate in other parts of the globe is moving towards comprehending the changing dynamics of media and journalism operations including establishing internal civil ways of dealing with complaints, media in Kenya seems not keen on such. They would rather be taken to court or to the Complaints Commission- where many times they have been given hefty court fines or several show cause letters by the Media Council of Kenya. In fact, as it is today, the debate seems to be moving away from media self-regulation that has been working well in the professionalisation of journalism albeit with challenges, to demanding for more stringent laws, administrative control mechanisms and moral/national values arguments to justify reducing space for free media. The frenzy to control the media seems to be taking the upper hand in the process, as the voices for those demanding for regulation; especially self-regulation seems to be getting lost. It’s becoming fashionable when people, bash the media or call for expanded laws to reign on the media- reduce space for independent and free media.
As we talk about media reforms, it’s important that we allow systems that can handle disputes and concerns about professional misconduct internally and in a civil way and leave the extreme ones to be handled by regulators and in very limited instances by courts. It’s through self-regulation/co-regulation that media can check both public and private powers.
The establishment of internal complaints handling mechanism through public editors will obviously go hand in hand with training to develop the capacity of the media personnel to pursue public interest agenda in an informed, professional, and responsible manner.
Kenya uses the co-regulation model in its regulation of the industry and profession through the MCK as the national statutory self-regulatory institution to enforce professional conduct amongst journalists and media and foster media development. Co-regulation is known to be appropriate for markets that have attained maturity and have established self-regulating mechanisms that provides the code of ethics and a complaint handling mechanism through the Act.
The Writer is the Director of Media Training and Development at the Media Council of Kenya ([email protected]