The events in the past week have brought the Kenyan society to a place where public debate and media introspection is needed in order to yield a new media- society contract. For avoidance of doubt, this article is premised on the fact that all Constitutional provisions are supreme and equal.
If this were not so, then the framers of the Constitution would have as well dropped or deleted the ‘contentious’ clauses or Parliament would by now have moved a referendum to make such fundamental changes.
Not just mere words
In essence therefore, Chapter 1 and 14 should be read not from a regime- preserving lens but from a nation-preserving perspective that takes cognizance that a nation is greater than the sum total of the regime and therefore whenever balance has to be struck, the Rule of Law should not just be heard in nice speeches but also in practical defense of fundamental rights.
It is against this background that the debate about the conduct of the media should have been debated. Three things stand out in this debate.
First, that no single institution within Government admitted role and complicity in switching off the select media houses off air essentially confirms such a decision was only effected by the regulator- but the least office it can originate from is the National Security Advisory Council as part of broader concomitant actions to manage a present and growing national security threat.
Lack of leadership
Second, the media industry lacked leadership to respond to the shutdown. None of the stations had done anticipation drills in readiness for a shut down and worse, collectively, the sector had no operational protocol of what should happen, how to engage, what set of actions should be taken collectively and so forth.
There was no leadership for the first 24- 48 hours and this allowed the under current narrative- an irresponsible media that deserves to shut down- to emerge.
Third, characteristic of the hypocritical, political and tribal leanings of the mass public, some engaged the set narrative from the ‘It doesn’t concern me perspective’ while some showed solidarity with the media but lacked a call to action.
The Kenyan media and the society it operates in is unique in several aspects that make the relationship between government- media- society very interesting.
First you have a monopolistic media sector that relies on a malevolent advertising industry controlled by agencies which have created an ecosystem that relies on what many think is questionable data.
Second, the development story is the least funded because advertising agencies lacking deeper conceptual understanding of audiences insist that ‘audiences prefer entertainment’ as opposed to thoroughly researched, balanced and in-depth development stories.
The Government has done nothing either in terms of even establishing a fund that can support either independent content producers nor media houses to development programming especially for harder to reach audiences such as children and marginalised communities. Instead, all these have been left to the fate of advertisers.
Third, few media houses have the necessary safeguards that allow excellent, honest and ethical means of fact-checking and a truly independent editorial process that can speak truth to power.
The Government through the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology is fully aware of these gaps but at no time has the current or previous Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries in charge of Broadcasting or the past Chairs of the Parliamentary Service Committees in charge of broadcasting ever taken a stand and called for a public consultation with a view of developing a white paper or a sessional paper to inform the necessary amendments to the current legislative framework.
The various media organizations from the Media Owners Association, the Editors Guild, Kenya Union of Journalists and the Media Council of Kenya are not playing towards one overall vision for the sector and never attempted to undertake some joint horizon scanning exercise to inform future fitness and present relevance.
And so we are at a loss on what should happen moving forward. But this situation is not entirely new. In 2012, the British society was gripped by a pulsating phone scandal that involved a meta cast of journalists and politicians leading to three major police operations.
Scandal in the UK
The aftermath of this phone hacking scandal involving The News of the World (formerly Britain’s biggest selling newspaper) and the public uproar led to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press. In his report, the chair of the inquiry The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson said this; “I know how vital the press is – all of it – as the guardian of the interests of the public, as a critical witness to events, as the standard bearer for those who have no one else to speak up for them. Nothing in the evidence that I have heard or read has changed that. The press, operating properly and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.”
This is the time for a concerted effort towards setting a new society- media contract instead of the bashing. For it is only through honest conversation that we shall emerge stronger and able to confront all other challenges that we face as a nation.