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Are media in Kenya facing a crisis of trust?

By George Nyabuga | Published Sun, July 16th 2017 at 00:00, Updated July 15th 2017 at 23:27 GMT +3

That the media in Kenya is facing serious challenges is not a secret. Although challenges and crises are part of life, some threats have far-reaching consequences.

A crisis of trust (and related concerns about their credibility and reliability) is haunting the media that was once considered the most trusted institutions in Kenya. Although not insurmountable, such a crisis points to growing concerns about the place of the media in a society.

When announcing the withdrawal from the presidential debate, Jubilee Party’s Secretary-General Raphael Tuju claimed that the “whole thing smells of conmanship”. And he raised the issue of not ‘knowing’ the organisers and their intentions. “On whose behalf are the organisers acting, and what mandate do they have to organise the debate?” he wondered.

I argued last week that such words may have far-reaching consequences on the place and role of the media in Kenya mainly because they question the very essence of the media in the country’s politics and democracy, and their ability to provide important information upon which people base their decisions.

Credibility and reliability

Worse, Tuju’s observations point to the declining relationship between certain sources of information, protagonists in media platforms, and the credibility and reliability as an institution that ought to inform and educate the public and thence contribute to the development of (a democratic) society.

Currently, there are concerns that the media are not objective, impartial, and that their reports are not balanced. A blemish on such key journalistic tenets or principles means people will start to look at the media with suspicion.

In effect, a serious introspection on the part of the media, and a discussion of the issue of trust is important as we approach the 8 August election. In the context of the presidential debates, we may ask ourselves: Are the organisers ‘conmen’? Whose agendas do they seek to advance or push via the event? Were the debates meant to help the candidates achieve their objectives of selling their ideas to Kenyans? Were they meant to help the public understand the candidates, their political parties and what they stand for and promise?

Such questions are important given the apparent suspicion that the media have been subjected to especially by the Jubilee Party. The media are no longer at ease. It thus behooves them to respond, and convince the public that the accusers are wrong, and their concerns off the mark. This is important as the media seek to extricate themselves from this difficult position.

Granted, the accusations and suspicions have thrown the media into a spin, and a crisis of trust is looming between the media and society, which affects relations between them.

The distrust of the media is based on the (sometimes fallacious) arguments and (faulty) beliefs that various factors, particularly ownership, management and control, and editorial policies and practices, and support for particular political parties, candidates/individuals or ideology and agenda, influence content.

Ability to hold

In the current political landscape, this thinking suggests that the media are intent on influencing (or even controlling) public thinking and opinion, and thus skewing voting towards particular candidates and their political parties.

There is of course a difference between routine and novel crises. Routine crises may be described as challenges and threats that often face the media, and thus there are always strategies and responses to deal with them.

Novel crises happen quickly, and often catch organisations and people off-guard. These often require quick but critical, careful and effective thinking to resolve. And thus the media face both although the latter, at this moment in time, is more damaging, and may have long-term repercussions on their ability to hold – particularly political and electoral – events that are credible and meaningful to society.

Even though there is no indication that they will fail to hold the presidential debate in 2017, it means they will find it difficult to, for instance, hold one in 2022 if Raila Odinga were to become president, assuming of course that he will not honour the promise to serve only for one term. Again, there are no indications that he will keep his word if elected president this year. Just thinking aloud!

Back to the issues at hand. To deal with challenges currently facing the media, it is important to dispel suggestions that some organisations serve particular interests, agendas and candidates, despite claims of fairness, impartiality and objectivity.

The media thus need to mitigate the damages by demonstrating their commitment to fairness, impartiality and objectivity, and other principles that underpin their performance.

There are (rather compelling) suggestions that the media should involve other actors in the organisation or management of the presidential debates. The inclusion of other actors in the debates would ensure the media team have the expertise and the knowledge necessary to organise a successful event.

Not that the media do not possess such. However, teamwork and inclusion are vital. Besides, as George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission argued in his Sunday Nation column last week, issues of concentration of ownership (and what that denotes in terms of control, and support of certain political issues/ideas/ideologies and candidates) “means that there is perhaps minimal wider public demand for the success of the debate.”

Importance in society

To mitigate the challenges and threats, Kegoro suggests that there is need to involve others in the organisation and management of the presidential debates. Although some civil society organisations have acquired dubious reputations because of their perceived anti-establishment activities, and support for the Opposition (thus attempts to bring on board civil society organisations may be resisted by some who also see it as creeping on their turf), there is no denying their importance in society.

Their involvement and inclusion would help rebuild their collective reputation and restore their place in society as a credible and trustworthy institution able to provide the information people need to make informed decisions and/or choices.

Besides, conventional wisdom suggests that teamwork and inclusion are critical to the success of the president (or indeed any) debate or media event.

The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.