Q&A: We still see conspiracy of silence when journalists come under attack

Veteran Kenyan journalist Churchill Otieno who’s been leading Eastern Africa Editors’ Society (EAES) as President since its establishment in 2021 recently handed over to his successor, Uganda editors’ guild Daniel Kalinaki. Elections by delegates from editorial associations in the region were held on the margin of the Second Africa Media Convention in Lusaka, Zambia a week ago.

The outgoing head spoke to NewsPaper Africa about issues that still plague the practice of independent journalism in East Africa.

Below are excerpts


What were the priorities when you came in and what’s your assessment more than two years later?

The essence of Eastern Africa Editors Society is to promote ethical journalism and our mission is endearing, constant veracity which means that we stand for facts every step of the way and that’s our attitude to journalism. We find innovative ways to encourage ethical practice of journalism and we believe that society needs that reliable and purposeful journalism to progress.

We do this through working with national editors’ forum or guilds because we know that editors being the leaders of journalism they have a proportionate amount of responsibility to make sure they mentor and lead the teams in way that propagate good journalism.

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We also know that in many places there are often powerful entities that would want to come in the way for good journalism and therefore we provide a platform for those who are keen to see journalism thrive, enable people’s access information and freedom of expression to find ways in which to promote solidarity, especially support one another in fight for media freedom.

We’ve been able to do that in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. We’ve had annual meetings to commemorate the World press freedom day that led to the birth of the Africa Media Convention whose first was held in Arusha last year and this time in 2023 it’s just ended in Southern Africa in Lusaka Zambia. The third edition will go to Accra, Ghana in Western Africa.

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This convention is an opportunity for key voices in journalism and key supporters of journalism to come together to reflect on various issues that affect the practice of journalism but also to align efforts in terms of moving forward, and finally also to network so that we can have a fraternity that has a shared understanding of what the landscape is and also consult on how to respond to some those situations.

We believe this will help open up the space for freer practice of journalism.

At the recently-concluded Africa Media Convention you presented your assessment of press freedom in the region and things didn’t look good. Does it get worse? What has the trend been?

It’s a mixed bag. In most instances journalists have a bit more space to operate but we still have instances of attacks and threats against journalists. The unfortunate thing is that when these come about they lead to very grave harm. Some have led to deaths for journalists.

There are also journalists in prison, there are journalists disappearing or being killed in mysterious circumstances, reporters covering demonstrations coming under the brunt of violence by policemen. Those are very worrying instances.

We are also observing instances where lots of soft ways are being applied to pile pressure on journalists. We call for constant vigilance by practitioners and by friends of journalism.

Many times there is conspiracy of silence when a journalist is attacked, threatened or killed, but you don’t hear many voice in society coming out to condemn those situations. We’d also like to see accountability in every instance of a threat or attack against a journalist.  The perpetrators of such offences must be brought to justice.

Churchill Otieno, President, Eastern Africa Editors’ Society (EAES)

You could elaborate on vigilance. What does it entail exactly?

Vigilance means that rights must be protected and where anyone violates those rights we want people to stand up to defend the victim in those situation. Many times there is conspiracy of silence when a journalist is attacked, threatened or killed, but you don’t hear many voice in society coming out to condemn those situations.

We’d also like to see accountability in every instance of a threat or attack against a journalist.  The perpetrators of such offences must be brought to justice.

As for a journalist, no story is worth dying for. It’s part of our work to make sure that we do the story and live to do the next story. It calls for a lot of safety precautions.

Back to solidarity, how has the fraternity served the practitioners who have come under attack in the region?

Usually we speak up for them, we have done that in Tanzania and Uganda where journalists have come under attack. Many times the local government listens.

We also have international partners that we collaborate with, and where we need to involve them we make sure the life of the journalist is secured.

What would you say are the main sources of threats to journalists today?

In many instances it tends to be State agencies such as security agencies, but essentially where there is a contestation as to the truth sometimes powerful sources want to suppress certain aspects of the truth.

So those in power decide to use that power to mess up with the journalist’s work.

Threats to press freedom in the region are documented in global reports mostly by Reporters Without Borders, but they are mostly rubbished by local authorities arguing that they don’t reflect the reality on ground especially when it comes to the ranking. What’s your view on that?

The fact of the matter is that our media space is challenged. We are confronted with the situation where we are having fewer and fewer media entities and those still left in the scene tend to be weaker and weaker. That leads to a lot of self-censorship sometimes for political and commercial reasons.

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We’ve had situation where editors have been pressured to hold back stories because those stories are seen to lead to less advertising. We find instances where political entities or individuals have become so powerful that sometimes doing stories about them lead to journalists being trolled or attacked.

In my view the ratings reflect the situation on ground. The methodologies that deliver those ratings are getting updated periodically, but those who dispute those ratings apparently are not updating their methods of measuring press freedom. I think that’s where the dichotomy comes out.

You mention State agencies among top sources of threats to press freedom in the region, and yet expect the government to address these issues. What makes you believe that there can be change?

The government has a responsibility not just to journalists but to the public that there is a free media, and we must hold it accountable so far as they deliver on that responsibility.

Usually government systems or resources are hijacked by special interest within government, people then abuse their power. That’s is the source of threats against journalists.

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