Why those maligning the media are getting it wrong

KTN News was one among three local TV stations shut down by the state. [Photo: Courtesy]
Over the past few days I have observed with a degree of bewilderment, the amount of vitriol directed at the four TV stations that were so unreasonably switched off by the Government on January 30 this year.

Self-styled pundits are falling over themselves on social media to give detailed ‘analysis’ of why the TV stations deserved to be silenced. Some have argued that the media took tea at State House in 2013 and is therefore complicit in whatever ills that may be associated with the current government. This group of critics says the media deserves to ‘die its own death’ because it consorted with the same government that is now oppressing it.

The second group of anti-media crusaders claims that the media has fought everything that the current government has attempted to do. That the media has become a mouthpiece of NASA and that without the government shutdown, the country would have been reeling from a bloodbath occasioned by NASA and the media. Then there is another group that claims the media is corrupt, uneducated and obsessed with the negative and the lewd, at the expense of development and public interest.

From the onset let me be the first to admit that as journalists we are no angels. Yes, we don’t always get the story right and yes, we sometimes pay too much attention to the politicians. I will even admit that some journalists do in fact take bribes, but that is only half the story.

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Just hours after two of the TV stations were switched back on, I posted a deliberately provocative tweet on the shutdown. The tweet in the form of a question was informed by what I saw as a hotchpotch of feedback coming from the public. I simply asked: Is the media in Kenya ‘in bed’ with the Government or is it a NASA mouthpiece? The insults aside, what I saw were a people struggling to find their place in a polarised Kenya. Almost without exception, the last name appeared to determine where one would stand on this debate – a sobering reality about the days of our lives.

To a degree my question was naïve, because, why must the media be one or the other, or indeed should the media even be seen to be supporting any one side? Second, the question presupposes that this thing called ‘media’ is a neat homogenous entity that thinks and acts in concert. It is NOT!

In my view, what was so eloquently described by several commentators, as a post-truth world, is here with us folks. Today, just about any story done by any journalist can be perceived to be pro-Jubilee or pro-NASA depending on who is seeing it. In fact even a legitimate investigation into the workings of a government ministry that would in the past be applauded by all, will be adjudged as anti-government propaganda by one side, while the other side will say it was edited by State House to remove the damning parts. Yes, in the post-truth age, truth and fact just don’t matter. Just ask former US President Barack Obama about his birth certificate saga.

In any civilised country, it ought to be wrong when a government arbitrarily shuts down private TV stations. It ought to be even more horrifying when the same government defies a court order on the same matter. But no, not in Kenya these days.

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We are in that dispensation where blue can be green depending on which side of the political divide you sit on. How is it that any discussion on social media for instance, quickly degenerates into primitive name calling? Does it mean that we have so degenerated as a nation that we can no longer hold civil conversations? What has tribe got to do with it, if your view differs from mine?

The trend

Over the past few days, I have seen a number of people say on social media that they never missed the TV stations that were off air. I don’t believe it! Reliable statistics demonstrate that those four stations account for more than 70 per cent of TV viewership in Kenya and that is a fact – unless of course these viewers come from the Maldives or Pengo Pengo Island.

These same critics have labelled the mainstream media as ‘githeri’ media in reference to that random gentleman who showed up at a polling station on August 8, 2017 clutching on to his little bag of githeri. Well, surprise, surprise – the videos of this very man are some of the most watched on YouTube – suggesting that perhaps there is also a ‘githeri public’ out there somewhere?

Does this mean, the media is blameless? Not by a long shot! The journalists hail from the same villages and towns as all the doctors who give wrong prescriptions and the lawyers who steal their clients’ money, and yes, even the few members of the public who jump traffic lights, bribe police officers and write in broken English.

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But that said, recent developments should no doubt send members of the fourth estate back to the drawing board. The media must ask itself key questions. For instance, is the current noise all part of the global post-truth hysteria or has the Kenyan media missed a step along the way? What are the new ways of being truly independent, without having to depend on the Government and its agencies for revenue?

This is a moment to face those existential questions and find a new paradigm for mainstream media in the age of relative truth and alternative facts.

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