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Attacking journalists and media houses won’t grow the economy

When Kenyan journalists protested against harassment. [Boniface kendo, Standard]

On Thursday, something that most mainstream media journalists in Kenya have been dreading happened. It did not come as a surprise though, but they have been hoping, probably against hope, that they would suffer no harm at political events because of their reportage.

This was not the first incident. Kenyan journalists have been victims of assault before, and for the past several months, from different political camps who think they are not getting enough and/ or fair coverage have been insulting them and their employers on rotation. Someone who has been living under a rock may wonder why, but it is the season when crybabies that are Kenyan politicians want journalists to help them deal with their demons and perceived enemies. This is their time for spreading hate and falsehoods, giving empty promises and blaming others.

It is the silly season when brains of Kenyan politicians and those of their cronies, surrogates, followers and employees go on recess; when they want only positive things about the broadcast. There was outrage after the Thursday incident with media stakeholders issuing statements condemning the attack and calling for action to be taken. But after all is said, nothing much will be done and the victims will not get the justice they deserve, for, the book will not be thrown at the attackers.

In a civilised society, the attackers would be punished but here, they will escape punishment because the mainstream media have become the punching bag of politicians and the society at large. It is easy to say that it should not be so, and that things should be better for the media. But ours is a country where political leaders and their cronies, surrogates, followers and employees do not want to look within to find their mistakes, but find it easy to blame the media for telling the public about those mistakes or wrongdoings.

It would be a lie to say that Kenya’s journalists used to enjoy the so-called freedom of the press in previous years. They have always been on the receiving end of the State and politicians, but things got worse from 2013, and even the public that would otherwise defend them, is fighting them. Several factors are to blame for this sad situation, and it is only right to write that journalists made the first mistake, when, for one tiny moment, they dropped their guard and accepted an invite from State House. That might be a simplistic way of looking at it, but that one breakfast meeting they had at State House probably made their hosts think they are too cheap and the public see them as sell-outs.

While they innocently thought they were on the way to forging a better working relationship in a modern era with an administration that sold itself as digital, futuristic and open to new ideas, the other party saw it differently. What followed was a flurry of legislation and utterances that not only demeaned journalists at their individual levels but weakened the media as an institution. It does not help matters much when Kenya’s biggest — by membership — and probably the strongest journalists’ body, is a trade union and not a professional body that all journalists can join.

While there are other professional bodies or special interest media-related organisations and even a regulator which is a quasi-State entity, Kenya’s media industry lacks one big strong body that can fight for it, ward off attacks from the State or powerful individuals, or speak in one powerful voice for journalists.

Then there is the economy. A tanking economy. It is also small. And the State has weaponised it against the media. Naturally, the size and poor state of the economy has affected the growth of the media industry and individual journalists who have to engage in side hustles to make ends meet. Some of the people they work with, or for, are the same politicians and State operatives who come up with, or influence media-unfriendly policies.

It would be a lie to say that Kenyan journalists are a united lot. It would be foolhardy also to expect them to be united in a country where laws are just but proposals, value systems are broken, nay, non-existent, and unity is just but a word in the National Anthem. Speaking in one voice as professional is not that easy in a country where dividing people along ethnic and class lines is the ultimate goal of politicians and their cronies.

Thus, Kenyan journalists have been put in this category of individuals whose aim is to bring down politicians, and by extension, stop Kenya from developing and achieving its goals.

They are not a respected lot and are ridiculed at the slightest opportunity, by both the learned and the most illiterate who feel that their various interests are not highlighted in the media or their favourite politicians do not get enough and/ or fair coverage.

As I wrote here two years ago, there are several other reasons why Kenyan journalists are not a respected lot, but whatever they are, no nation ever developed because it was so good at attacking journalists or killing the media industry.