By Moses Otsieno
According to UNESCO and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 24 journalists have been killed so far this year across the world. In East Africa, the press freedom index on safety and security of journalists has declined significantly over the last 12 months compared to other parts of the world. Uganda is ranked by the 2016 World Press Freedom Index at number 102 out of 180 countries surveyed (the worst abuser in the region), followed by Kenya at 95 and Tanzania at 71.
The declining level of safety and security of journalists in the East African Community (EAC) is largely due to widespread attacks by state agents, such as the police and politicians, targeting journalists and media houses. According to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, Media Council of Kenya and Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda, journalists are attacked most frequently for covering stories on human rights violations, but also for puzzling reasons such as producing ‘inaccurate’ stories.
The majority of these attacks are neither investigated nor punished, even when the culprits are well known, thus creating a culture of impunity in which justice for victims is denied. Restrictive and archaic laws also contribute to a culture of violence and impunity. Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian governments are increasingly enforcing laws without due protection for journalists that violate established international human rights norms and principles. For example, criminal defamation under the penal code has frequently been used by the police to (threaten to) arrest, detain and suppress journalists and media houses for exposing corruption or criticizing the government.
The precise impact of these pervasive attacks on journalists, media workers and press freedom in general has not been fully explored. What is clear, however, is that intimidated and unprotected journalists have resorted to self-censorship. Also, media houses have become less critical of government and other leaders amid popular perceptions that they have abandoned their public watchdog role. Journalists and media workers can only do their work properly if they are not constantly subjected to threats, harassment, physical or mental attacks.
EAC states have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in which Articles 2 and 19 oblige governments to safeguard the rights of all citizens – including journalists – within their jurisdiction, specifically, against any violations committed by public or state officials and private persons. This obviously also means condemning – not condoning – such violations.
In conclusion, the EAC must do things differently to enhance the safety and security of journalists. States’ efforts need to focus on establishing a coordinated inter-agency platform that will address safety and protection, in line with the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists (IPDC) and the Issue of Impunity, which encourages concerted action by multiple stakeholders based on their competence. Such an inter-agency platform could provide opportunities for collective engagement with civil society and private sector – including media houses – based on partnership and mutual respect.