The just ended East African journalists’ convention at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre was an eye opener in more than one way. It brought into the fore the hard realities of semantic differences in interpreting vital terminologies in the profession between the traditional adversaries in journalism. This time the tug of war rope was the term journalism itself. Does it signify a profession, a trade or a craft.
On one end of the rope were qualified practitioners backed by academics and some lawyers who believed journalism in Kenya ought to be, if indeed it isn’t already, a profession. They strongly argued that if journalism in the region wasn’t a profession then the process of professionalizing it legally ought to have started ages ago. On the other end of the rope were believers in keeping journalism as a craft for fear of introducing regulations to professionalize it with the danger of controlling its practice.
The convention ended without the two seeing eye to eye. To give the subject room for further debate I believe the first step to be taken must be defining what a profession is. The best definition of a profession as far as journalism is concerned is, in my opinion, from my good friend Michael Kunczik , a Journalism Professor at the Johannes Good Mountain University, Mainz in Germany with whom I co-authored the book “Ethics in Journalism: A reader on their perception in the Third World”. He says a profession is a vocation or an occupation that requires special skills that are based on theoretical foundations which are acquired through systematic training and then tested in a special professional examination which regulates entry into the profession whose members are bound by a Code of Ethics through a legally constituted professional organisation.
In Kenya the fact of the matter is that whether one is in the print or electronic media he or she cannot survive in the country’s vibrant journalism without mastering many special skills needed in news gathering, writing, editing and presenting through various media. The truth is modern journalism is based on strict theoretical foundation grounded on writing skills, interviewing techniques, ethical principles and a lot of knowledge of media law. Do these qualify to be described as theoretical foundations? In my view, yes.
Anyone who has gone through a reputable school of journalism will tell you that training in journalism is becoming very special both in its introductory level and in its various areas of specialisation in both the print and electronic fields including online journalism. New innovations have made the training both more technical and challenging. Today journalism in Kenya is tested through special professional examinations.
To get a degree in journalism one has to pass professional examinations at university level which are set after thorough moderations by professors who examine whether they are of the required degree acceptable levels which may include research and projects as well as hands-on assignments. Unfortunately journalism university exams in this country do not regulate the entry into the profession.
In Kenya, like in all other East African countries represented at the convention which included Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Southern Sudan, it is only the proprietors who determine the entry into the profession through unilateral methods of closed shop system in reverse. The tough question is: Does this domination and control by proprietors need re-examination?
It can be argued that the legal definition of a journalist in Kenya which is found in Section Two of Kenya’s The Media Act of 2007, does, for all practical purposes, professionalize journalism. It so happens that members of the fourth estate in this country have belonged to many different, and sometime adversarial, organisations which include the Kenya Union of Journalists , Media Owners’ Association, Editor’s Guild, Kenya Correspondent Association, Media NGOs, Media Training Institutions, Public Media and the Alternative Press, among others.
In 1993, when the then Attorney General Amos Wako threatened to come up with a code of ethics for journalists, all these otherwise confrontational organisations joined hands to form a Media Industry Steering Committee which was instrumental in the formation of the first self-regulating and independent Media Council which framed up the existing code of conduct. The question is: Can the present shape and structure of the Media Council pass for a professional organisation for journalists?
The Second Schedule of the Media Act of 2007 talks of CODE OF CONDUCT FOR THE PRACTICE OF JOURNALISM. Was there a deliberate avoidance of the use of the term “ETHICS”? There are known editors in this country who are opposed to professionalization and are against the term “ethics”. They give it its philosophical, rather than professional, meaning. Be that as it may the Code lists 25 principles as part of the law. Is there room for the improvement of this code?
According to the law the Media Council is supposed to perform duties of a professional organisation which include advising the government or the relevant regulatory authority on matters pertaining to professional, education and the training of journalists and other media practitioners. These are normally the functions of a proper professional institution.
While examining this specific question journalism scholars always ask whether the law on recommendations on employment criteria is strong enough or whether it needs reinforcement so as to professionalize journalism properly in Kenya. Whatever the case may be the law says the Council’s duty is to make recommendations on the employment criteria for journalists. The law also says the Council shall uphold and maintain the ethics and discipline of journalists as set out in the Act and any other relevant law.
It also gives the Council powers to conduct an annual review of the performance and the general public opinion of the media, and publish the results in at least two local newspapers. With this kind of law in existence in Kenya it is hard not to accept the fact that journalism has been professionalized in this country.
The most provocative, may be even controversial, question is whether in Kenya we have proprietors who unilaterally determine entry into journalism because of their sole powers to hire and fire. Arguably some of them go as far as interfering with the ethical principle of INDEPENDENCE in editorial decision making process. Naturally professionalization would change all that.
The second group opposed to professionalization of journalism in Kenya is made up of untrained journalists who see the process either as making them lose their jobs or taking them back to school to acquire the minimum required qualifications. Needless to say even with professionalization citizen journalists will still have a role to play in social media through the blogosphere, podcasts and twitters.
The third group opposed to professionalization of journalism includes despotic governments eager to muzzle the media without real professionals independently establishing a proper fourth estate. In Kenya when the Media Act was first drafted in 2007 by the Government an attempt was made to introduce a section that would compel journalists to disclose sources of their information. This led to hundreds of journalists marching silently through Nairobi streets to condemn the proposed section of the law. Fortunately the section was changed to give journalism in Kenya its present vibrant character.
Joe Kadhi is a journalism lecturer at the United States International University.