Media accused of not playing watchdog role

Journalists at work (Photo: Courtesy)

Hours after the results of the presidential elections were announced, when the police were on their brutalisation spree, a certain group of Kenyans started complaining about local media.

Their collective grouse was that local journalists were not reporting what innocent Kenyans were going through at the hands of the police, who are supposed to uphold the law, and were instead airing children’s shows.

While local journalists can easily dismiss the complainants as perennial whiners who never say anything positive about the local media and are always looking for faults, it will be foolhardy to completely disregard their concerns since they had a point, more so when they moved from media’s inability to report police brutality and extended it to media’s conduct during the electioneering period and corruption in the media.

Media are unfair

Did the media do a good job — where they shortchanged, outsmarted or outwitted because journalists decided to go to bed with politicians, more so those aligned with the Government?

“I think we did a good job,” says Macharia Gaitho, an independent journalist who was heading Daily Nation’s Election Desk.

The accusation that the media are in bed with the Government did not start with 2017 elections, but has been a narrative from 2013 when journalists were invited to State House (for breakfast.)

Most of the complainants were deemed to be supporters of the Opposition who felt that security agencies were brutalising people in Opposition zones only. The story that was being subtly told was that the media had been unfair to the Opposition and other private citizens, and their failure to air the heavy-handedness of the police was the climax of a long-running dog-whistle bias of painting the Opposition in bad light and covering up the excesses of the Establishment.

“During elections,” says Gaitho, “we are always caught in the middle of the contending forces so you have on one side the Government which is also an interested party in the elections, and the Opposition and each expect the media to see their exclusive point of view.”

According to Gaitho, a veteran journalist who has covered all Kenya’s multi-party elections, and one US election, the contenders never appreciate the neutrality of the media. “If the media remain neutral, then each of them says the media are against us,” he says.

But can the media or Kenyan media specifically pass the neutrality test and were they neutral during the 2017 elections? The “correct” answer depends on who fields that question, but reporters who were in the field, or who cover politicians have the right answer: Neutrality exists on paper, it is spoken about, casually, but in their ranks, they know which political camps they belong to, and how they skew stories to favour certain camps or politicians.

In an ideal newsroom, an unbalanced story should not be published or aired, but they do — begging the question, what happened to the gatekeepers?

“They are not there,” says Patrick Gathara, an award-winning cartoonist who has made a career calling out the Kenyan media over their sloppiness.

He contends that the good journalists, the veterans Kenya used to have in the 90s, moved away from the newsrooms to the boardrooms, and thus the younger professionals lack mentors, have no grounding in journalistic ethics...and since there is no one to teach them journalistic values “they just check grammar and correct language without considering context.”

Charles Kerich, the chairman of Media Council of Kenya and the Managing Editor at Radio Africa Group, agrees with Gathara when it comes to mentorship or lack of it.

Election analysis

“Mentorship is very important,” Kerich says. “Some media houses have training editors who don’t talk about the culture of the newsroom but concentrate on grammar. I think older journalists should go the extra mile and make the younger ones understand much more than just how to write stories.”

He says there is need for journalists to have platforms on which they can discuss issues, and have their own discussions as the media.

“We as the media need to do an election analysis on how we behaved, how we covered it and where we went wrong and where we need to improve...Such forums give us an opportunity to discuss the way forward for the industry,” Kerich says, adding that “in order to protect our reputation, we need to have a conversation about all these developments.”

Gathara, a social commentator who believes that the soul of the Kenyan media was sold, says that in Kenya, the media have been “celebritised.” Yeah. That means Kenyan newsrooms and studios have more socialites, faces with good make-up, clear voices, good-looking people in nice-fitting clothes and shoes, than content, brains and quality.

Harsh, but he says this trend did not start in 2017 or 2013. It started in 2003.

“After Kibaki got in, there was a sense that we had achieved because there was this ganging up of the media and the church and the civil society because they had been victims,” Gathara says.

He adds that the media felt that they were a part of the struggle and so they gave Kibaki a honeymoon period and it took time for them to start waking up to hold him to account, but they never really did.

“By 2007/8 General Election, the media were just as divided as the rest of the society. By then it had kind off started losing the grasp of standing by its own for public interest and commercial interests had actually taken over.”

It is the commercial interest that politicians, and more so the Establishment has continued to exploit and used to not only outwit the media, but also arm-twist them — and the 2017 General Election was no exception.

There is a narrative that Kenyan media settled into a mode of not just making cash, but also defending the Establishment instead of challenging it.

Ideally, every shortcoming of the Kenyan media is attributed to one thing: Corruption. The story is that the media are corrupt or can easily be corrupted — or made to conform — by the corporate world and more so the Establishment, and that is what happened this year.

When people talk about corruption in the media, many of them refer to Brown Envelope Journalism whereby individual journalists are paid off by politicians or corporate firms. However, there is the “commercial” corruption which Gathara refers to when he speaks about the media concentrating on commercial interests.

He insists that the Establishment, as a source of revenue, has continuously blackmailed the media by threatening to pull out advertisements, and during the electioneering period, this was rampant.

On Brown Envelope Journalism, Kerich says the givers are equally culpable and when the giver and the receiver conspire to keep quiet, it is very hard to know the extent and to take action.

“I have encountered corporate communication managers who say they create budgets every year to facilitate journalists and I tell them by doing that, they are institutionalising (Brown Envelope Journalism),” Kerich says.

When it comes to commercial interests, during the 2017 election, he says he did not encounter pressure from the Government regarding advertisements. “Maybe people were being too careful, but I did not experience such a situation.”

Gaitho admits that Brown Envelope Journalism is rampant, and says that it needs to be fought at all desks, and not at the lowest levels alone.

“There is no excuse for corruption, whether you are poor or rich and it has nothing to do with what you earn. It is a moral failing. We will more effectively fight Brown Envelope Journalism when we fight it not just at the bottom end, of the eating but from the top.

“When editors are in league with politicians, or business people, what moral authority do they have to expect reporters to comply with the rules?,” he poses, and adds that “if advertising revenue is being used to influence editorial, then we have a problem.”