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Ranking should reflect US shrinking media space

By Levi Obonyo
Friday, June 5th, 2020
President Donald Trump. Photo/Courtesy

It is a tough time to be a journalist in the United States today. The media is subjected to a systematic abuse from the White House.

President Donald Trump has labelled much of the media “fake” and berated journalists whenever they have raised questions he did not like. This past week the tough environment went a notch higher.

An CNN journalist, Omar Jimenez, was arrested in broad daylight with cameras rolling. The governor of Minnesota later apologised but the damage was already done. 

A freelance photojournalist, Linda Tirado, covering the same event was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet rendering her blind in the one eye. A reporter with LA Times was hit with a rubber bullet on the leg.

Elsewhere across the US, journalists were teargassed and targeted with pepper sprays.

Again and again, the police retorted with “I don’t care” when the journalists identified themselves or showed their badges.

Press freedom indicators tell the story of the decline of press freedom in the US since Trump took over white House.

In January 2017, when Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, the country ranked 41 overall in global press freedom ranking.

That ranking has been going down steadily. In 2018 the US ranked 45, while in 2019, the index went down another three slots to 48, while in 2020, Reporters Without Borders indicated that the situation in the US had improved and ranked US at the 45th position.

But it is not clear what really improved in the US to warrant the change in the ranking.

There are several factors that these global measurements look at through their mixed methods that combines both qualitative and quantitative approaches. 

The measures considered include the plurality of the media in the country, independence of the press, the overall media environment, self-censorship in the media, the legislative framework within which the media operate, transparency in journalism and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information, among others.

At the qualitative level, informants draw from their subjective information bank to feed into the ranking machine.

Obviously how the informants are selected and their subjective information bank are factors. From a distant observer, it is a surprise that with all the seeming deterioration, America still outperforms many countries.

It is a month since we last celebrated the world press freedom day. Our media activists never tire to remind the world the oppressed state of media in the country.

If the indicators are the same, then we should be seeing better ranking of Kenya over the years.

This is an important consideration for the students of the media and freedom of the press.

Over the last 10 years, the media in Kenya have become more plural (TV space alone has improved from less then ten to over 85 today), and even more independent.

There has been a sea change in legislative framework and the overall quality of the infrastructure that supports media and the information sector. We could say the same for other indicators.

Yet Kenya’s ranking has remained where it has always been—problematic.

If what is happening to the US media were to happen to Kenyan media there would be an avalanche of protests by civil society and western diplomats.

But there has not been a similar protest against White House. Indeed, no diplomat, civil society agency has sent a protest note to the White House.

If the rankings are objective and, therefore, worth the attention, then the ranking of the US will be indicative.

The damage to media space in the US has been visible and the ranking should reflect that.

Otherwise the ranking may be perceived to be no more tinged with racial factors, the very cause of the current rancor in the US. —The writer is dean, School of Communications, Daystar University

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