State onslaught on free media is ill-advised and bound to fail

Camera crews in action during the 2023 Madaraka Day Celebrations at Moi Stadium in Embu. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

That the media industry has been undergoing hard times is an open secret. But it is a different ball game when official government policy seems to target the sector directly to further diminish its fortunes.

The onslaught has been ongoing since former President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that ‘newspapers are for wrapping meat’. This was one of the lowest moment for him and his administration.

The Kenya Kwanza administration seems to have taken it a notch higher. While not expected to be ‘buddies’ given the intricate nature of the media business, it is inconceivable when a government takes deliberate policy initiatives to destroy such a crucial sector in the economy and society.

The world over, any democratic government and society have to find means and ways to maintain a healthy love-hate relation with the media, commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate.

Valid questions are: Can a government and society, in general exist without this vital engine of information flow? Does the media play any role in economic development and advancement of society? What are the pros and cons of a vibrant media industry?

In a paper by Djankov Simeon, Islam Roumeen and McLeish Caralee in 2002 and published by the World Bank in the World Development Report, the authors argue that free press is not a luxury in the economy and society. Rather, it is at the core of equitable development.

The paper highlights benefits of a vibrant media industry to include: can expose corruption in government, private sector and society in general; it keeps check on public policy; allows people voice diverse opinions on governance and reforms; helps build consensus to bring about change in society; helps markets work better; facilitates trade, transmitting of ideas and innovations across boundaries; and important in human development by bringing health, education and information to remote villages.

However, the paper argues that the independence of the media can be fragile and easily compromised. To effectively support development, the media thus requires the right environment in terms of freedoms, capacities, checks and balances.

That notwithstanding, the survival of the media is depended on the state that regulates it, the businesses that pay to advertise and the consumers that it serves. Djankov et al. argues that how the media balances these tripartite interest determines not just the ability of the media to survive, but also its effect on economic performance.

Now, the policy makers who imagine the media industry can be forced out of business are grossly mistaken. While it is true the digital edge and social media have dramatically changed the playing field, it is unlikely that traditional media will be replaced entirely.

The worst that can happen and must happen is for mainstream media to reform and adapt to the new trends. This has happened in many other economic systems including jurisdiction that frown press freedom.

Given, there might be many plausible reasons that can explain the government aggression against media, the growing dissatisfaction from the populace and declining fortunes of the industry.

For instance, the KK aggressive policy is evidentially traceable from their campaign rhetoric against key media houses. The same anti-media sentiments from the general public also emanate from the emotions of the campaign season where media is perceived to takes sides. So consumers shift loyalty based on these perceptions.

While it is not a unique phenomena in many democratic societies, the problem in our case is because it happens in a clandestine manner. In democracies like the US, media houses are largely open on their political partisanship.

However, they remain guarded not to create wrong perceptions during the actual voting and in declaring the electoral outcomes.

Secondly, the media industry cannot co-exist outside the economy in which it operates. In a good democracy, the government remains the biggest consumer of media product and services. This is despite the media exposing graft in government, misdemeanors among public officials and unethical practices in private business and society.

Equally true, no government or private business can effectively communicate its agenda, policies and shape public opinion without an effective media engagement.

-The writer is a development economist