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Securing Civic Space by earning Public Trust

Early last month, four men broke down the door to social media activist Edwin Mutemi Kiama’s house in Nairobi, seized him and confiscated his phones and laptops.

It is notable that his seizure occurred during curfew hours, when he was not in the act of committing a crime. Nonetheless, after a night in police custody, no charges were preferred against him, but police instead sought to detain him for seven days as they investigated him. Although he was released on personal bond, his phones and computers continue to be detained.

Threats to civic space in Kenya and in the entire East African regional are increasingly shifting away from the formal realm of law to the informal instrumentalisation of police and state power, as evidenced in the Kiama case.

Besides trampling on individual rights only intimidates those who robustly exercise their right to free expression, the seizure of personal mobile telephones and laptops compromises the integrity of confidential information and the identity of whistleblowers who often reach out to active individuals.

Civic space questions have been bifurcated as affecting media differently from how they impact on civil society and the public at large, but all three draw their freedoms from the same fountain of human rights.

Human rights is the home of the media and of civil society, but broadly, societies need to preserve the space for civic discourse and action to allow a robust oversight of governments and the defence of the public interest. Media freedom thus occurs within the broader human rights framework that safeguards civic space.

Yet, the influence and power of legacy media has been declining due to a combination of factors. The corporatization of media through conglomeration and consolidation severely interrupted public interest journalism, and undermined plurality and diversity of voice by swallowing up small start-ups. The promise of financial independence, which was the value proposition of media consolidation, suffered mission drift by turning journalism into defenders of business rather than the public interest. The private sector stampede into the media produced atrophy in public media and the pursuit of profit alone has alienated the public. Matters have not been helped by official negative rhetoric in critiquing the media practice, thus undermining their credibility and stature, and thus the space they occupy in democracies.

It is not in doubt that privateers in the media have done well by their shareholders, even though the same cannot be said for the public. Over the past decade, the Nation Media Group which has holdings in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, has made over Sh20 billion in profits on the backs of journalists. The corporation has been so financially comfortable as to buy a modern printing press and a digital broadcasting system in cash without seeking financing from any institution. Yet, barely a fortnight after announcing Sh856 million in after tax profit, it began a ruthless retrenchment targeting journalists. It is ironic that at the slightest sign of financial decline, private sector media are scrambling to lay off hundreds of journalists.

Media regulators appear to have been captured by the state and corporations and are therefore unable to rein in excess from either.  

The shrinkage of civic space, which was already apace for years, has been exacerbated by government measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of the invasions into civic space are evident in proposed amendments to the law to allow the government to seize communication equipment without a court order.

At the individual level, many people are physically gagged by the requirement to wear a face mask in public; to adhere to dusk-to-dawn curfew; and not to travel into or out of the country’s two largest cities. Enforcing these measures through the use of compulsive police power has resulted in deaths, physical injuries, and loss of liberty.

Public gatherings have been disallowed, and so the population has been pacified and gagged, and the prohibition of physical meetings has taken away the right to assemble; the right to petition authorities; and to participate in the management of public affairs.

Similarly, public grief has been silenced, and the state has appropriated burials through restrictive requirements that bodies be buried within 24 hours of death, with police supervision and attendance limited to 15 people.

The revocation of rights is only mitigated by the use of the networked communication environment – including telephony and the Internet. In the Covid-19 era, online spaces have acquired the character of a public sphere as described by Jurgen Habermas, but the challenges of access that circumscribe legacy media continue to trouble it. The hurdles that have hampered legacy media continue to frustrate online civic space.

Digital migration has not harnessed online space to give effect to the charters of freedom in the Constitution.

Ordinarily, media is considered free when there is free entry into and free exit from the market, but it is circumscribed by capital – around the costs of a printing press and a distribution network. Online and broadcast versions of media are constrained connectivity and gadget costs, as well as gaps in digital literacy. In the absence of sufficient positive investment to entrench freedoms, their promise remains unfulfilled. This means that civic space guarantees would be enhanced by legacy media working in concert with new media.

First, a coalition of necessity between the media and civil society is now required to mount legal challenges using the law and the constitution to contest assaults n civic space. In the event that people continue to be constrained by illegal and unjust laws and regulations, defiance should be seriously considered as a legitimate option.

Proficient journalists who are leaving regular employment require support through grants for independent and freelance journalism. Resources need to be directed to converting some of the crises into opportunities.

Second, the academy needs to undertake research that tracks practice trends, behaviour. There is need for a political economy analysis thoroughgoing that increases understanding, discourses to restore credibility and collapsing the dichotomy between civil society and the media. Scholars and researchers need to gather data around the structural violence perpetuated in media organisations undermine the ability to organize, unionise or demand rights.

Finally, the media’s role as watchdog is largely unsupervised, and that needs to change so that its power is also accountable. Watching the media should be expanded to cover civil society, to bring to life the aphorism that sunshine is the best antiseptic. Building credibility through greater transparency can also earn public support.

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