Sunday, January 4, 2009

Rights and Responsibilities

There is little doubt that a free press is vital to democracy, if that free press keeps people informed about what is going on in the country and in the world. If the free press chooses to print only what they deem newsworthy and seldom bothers to investigate anything that comes their way, it's hard to see how they could be so vital.

So I'm assuming that the Kenyan press has done at least some of the things that they should have been doing. Over the past year, there was certainly no shortage of things to report on. The press duly covered the issues and, in addition to covering the post election violence and political manoeuvrings, raised questions about water shortages, food shortages, MPs not paying taxes, fuel shortages and various other excesses.

They even went further than that. They suggested that some of the various shortages in the country were connected with certain politicians. The country needs more of this, and the press is to be congratulated. Perhaps they have improved from the time when coverage of issues concerning the HIV epidemic were sensationalist, moralising, inaccurate and slavishly copied from whatever source happened to be available.

Now, no one could accuse Mwai Kibaki of being inexperienced in politics or in his handling of the press. He held senior positions under Kenyatta and Moi and I assume he learned a lot during that period. He also seems to be putting some of that experience into practice by signing the 2008 Amendment to the Communications Bill of 1998. I wonder was his attitude towards Aids also influenced by that of Moi?

In 1989, it is said that Moi ordered the quarantining of all people found to be HIV positive. Thankfully, those receiving the order quietly failed to act on it. In 1993, he refused to accept that the epidemic had become national in scope. Yet later estimates suggest that nearly one million people were infected by 1993. It was also the year when the rate of new infections peaked and many thousands had already died.

In the mid 90s, the Kenyan government recognised Aids as a critical issue, but major donors were bypassing the government because they were not felt to be reliable when it came to spending the money. In 1997, the year the Kenyan parliament approved a 15 year national Aids policy, Moi, on this election year, gave in to religious leaders and dropped school sex education plans. By 1999 the man was willing to acknowledge that Aids was a national disaster but still felt it improper to encourage the use of condoms in schools and colleges. In 2001, still keeping step with religious leaders, he still spoke out against the use of public money to provide condoms.

By 2002, when the newly elected Kibaki declared total war on Aids, prevalence had already dropped to 6.6%, the lowest it had been since 1993. By the time either he or his predecessor had got around to being the leaders they were elected to be, it was too late for the tens of thousands who had already died and the approximately 1,600,000 who were HIV positive.

Of course, you can't blame Kibaki for that, he had only just been elected; the decline in HIV prevalence from the late 1990s was, to a large extent, due to a high death rate. As death rates declined, prevalence started to rise again. But in the years following Kibaki's presidency, large amounts of donor money continued to be unaccounted for. Eventually, people were found to be siphoning off the money for themselves and some of them have been convicted. But it's hard to detect any big change in HIV policy. Perhaps Kibaki, like Moi, was worried about the effect that the epidemic would have on the Kenyan tourist industry.

The current Kenyan National HIV/Aids Strategic Plan was published in 2005. It is due to run until 2010. However, it is largely based on the previous strategic plan, despite conditions being very different then. These two plans cover the period when HIV declined for a while, only to increase again. The prevention programmes seem to have had little effect. So it is to be hoped that the next plan is being researched at the moment and will be significantly different from the last two.

This gives the media time to do some investigative reporting, rather than waiting till the next strategic plan comes out and then merely noting its highlights. If they are to play a part in keeping people informed about how this government is doing in the fight against HIV, they need to do their research and constantly update people. It's not enough to blast out a few articles around World Aids Day, echo sensationalist rubbish from the international press or cover visits by bloated celebrities who are currently on the HIV bandwagon.

I believe there are some intelligent people working for the Kenyan press. I hope we see more evidence of that when it comes to coverage of issues such as poverty, especially rural poverty, rural neglect and lack of access to social services, inequality, especially gender inequalities, sexual and gender related violence and abuse and labour related practices that compromise human rights. The list is not exhaustive but it's a good start.

Perhaps it is because the government got away with ignoring the plight of some of the most vulnerable people in the country for so long that they thought gagging the press would be relatively easy.


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