Huge libel awards hurt press freedom
The 2010 Constitution is an ambitious document that is widely celebrated for its deliberate leaning towards greater freedoms.
It is a negotiated settlement on the country’s governance after many years of sacrifice by brave Kenyan voices, including the media.
One of the main gains for the press is in Articles 34 and 35 which provide for freedom and independence of the media and access to information.
Many journalists have put their lives on the line to defend these freedoms as they seek to promote democracy, fair play, rule of law, inform society and drive national conversations.
The media in Kenya has been at the forefront – almost single-handedly – in the fight against graft and impunity.
In this fight, we are forever guided by objectivity, fairness and the pursuit of the truth as required by the industry code of conduct.
The fact that a free, responsible and independent media is an important pillar in a democracy cannot be overemphasised.
As one respected US newspaper declares, democracy dies in darkness.
That is why we are concerned about the obscenely punitive defamation awards that pose not only an existential threat to media houses but also border on curtailing press freedom.
These, coupled with incessant gag orders even on matters of great public interest, are eroding press freedom gains.
Whereas those aggrieved should seek redress in the corridors of justice, the punishment meted out should be reasonable.
We find the Homa Bay High Court decision ordering a local daily to pay Sh22 million to a businessman for alleged defamation grossly punitive.
It is the kind of decision that can lead to job losses and instil a level of timidity in the media that is unhealthy for democracy – or even cripple it.
We know that there are avenues for appeal but there is already a demonstration of lack of judicial restraint.
While we respect the independence and authority of the courts, we reserve the right to raise objections to their decisions, especially those touching on fundamental freedoms. Days when courts gave colossal awards for defamation are long gone.
That the Defamation Act deliberately defines serious harm with regards to business should have informed the courts when awarding Sh11 million to the Migori Enterprise and a similar amount to its director.
We defend press freedom and urge all to protect it if we are to safeguard the role of the Fourth Estate.