Chief Justice Willy Mutunga recently met with the Media Council of Kenya represented by the Council’s chairman, Prof Levi Obonyo. The Media Council wants the Judiciary to ‘review’ the punishments meted out to ‘media houses’ that have been found guilty of ‘defamation’ or the ‘invasion of privacy’. The Kenya Forum will translate: the media in Kenya want to be able to libel people without suffering the consequences and they want the law on their side when they do so.
Prof Obonyo (as reported in The Saturday Nation) ‘said there was a need for the Judiciary to agree with the council on what constitutes privacy of public figures and whether reporters can be punished for publishing stories of public interest concerning them’. There was a need, Prof Obonyo apparently argued, to ‘differentiate between privacy accorded to public figures and those of ordinary citizens’ and that, ‘sometimes issues of public interest override the privacy of high ranking officials’.
Our natural reaction as ‘ordinary citizens’ is surely that we want to get the ‘high ranking officials’. Our considered reaction should surely be, that way madness lies if it means subverting the law and the fundamentals of natural justice.
THE JUDGE ALNASHIR VISRAM AWARD
‘Courts have recently been accused of awarding outrageous monetary penalties against journalists and media houses found to have published defamatory stories against public figures’ the ‘Nation Reporter’ er… reported and cited a libel award made by Judge Alnashir Visram of Sh30 million.
Well the Visram award was 12 years ago, so the Forum doesn’t think that counts as that ‘recent’, and the case wasn’t against a Kenyan ‘media house’ but rather a British tabloid journalist who’d written a book in which he’d got the facts wrong about the murder of Dr Robert Ouko and named the wrong man for the murder, but we take the point.
Regular readers of the Kenya Forum will know, however, that we looked at that case in detail in April 2011 (‘The Sword of Justice is Mightier than the Poisoned Pen’) and Judge Visram was quite right to have made an award, and right to have handed down a stiff penalty.
GET THE FACTS STRAIGHT
The long and the short of it is that you can’t just ‘publish and be damned’, you have to get your facts straight. That is where Kenya’s ‘media houses’ fall short. Day in day out they already publish stories and news reports without even the pretence of bothering with something minor like the facts.
Be they public figures or ordinary citizens, Kenyans deserve the protection of the law, but if they break the law they deserve to be in court, including being arraigned in court of public opinion through the media. The level of proof required in either case is the same.
Don’t ask to lower the level of proof required to convict Prof Obonyo, or have one level for some and another for others.
Fear not Prof Obonyo if you get your facts straight you can publish what you like. All it requires is a bit more professionalism and hard work on the part of journalists and editors in Kenya’s media houses.