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Matiang'i proposal will undermine the media

By Charles Mulila | July 6th 2014

That the Government is the biggest consumer of goods and services in this economy is a well elucidated statement of fact.

That is precisely why a decree by a Cabinet Secretary that all Government ministries, departments and parastatals advertise their services online has raised a storm in the media industry. In the wisdom of Dr Fred Matiang’i, it is more prudent that Government tenders, vacancy announcements, sale of absolute stores and even obituaries be placed online.

The other alternative tendered by the CS in his most unfortunate and controversial directive is the pooling of all adverts to a secretariat that will then decide where to place the adverts, including statutory notices often advertised by strategic parastatals.

The CS presumably had consulted widely within and without Government before he pronounced himself on this matter. After all, he has an impeccable CV backed by experience from the private sector. Given that Government policy implementation units employ top-notch graduates, we can hypothesis without fear of contradiction that the CS solicited and received sound advice from the galaxy of professionals at his beck and call.

And as the final authority in matters Information, the CS should of necessity have found time and reason to weigh the political, economic and social implications of his pronouncement before subjecting it to a public referendum.

Had he afforded himself the benefit of serious reflection, the CS would probably have noticed the red line he was about to cross and stepped back.

Being a consumer of media services now and in the past, Dr Matiang’i knows, or ought to know that the main revenue stream of all media houses the world over is advertising. The implication of the above is that newspapers and TV stations must source three quarters of their revenue projections from advertising sales. And more than 60 per cent of the budget mentioned above is sourced from Government, which is the custodian of taxpayers’ cash.

So why should the Government be so keen to starve the media of advertising revenue at a time when the economy is receding? Simple. Freeze of advertising means that the mainstream media will not be able to actualise their budgets. This will eventually create a cash flow crisis that will inevitably weaken operations of newsrooms across the board, thereby making media outlets vulnerable to state manipulation.

Such a scenario would expose media owners to financial distress and force them to cooperate with the Government. There are short term gains for such moves. The Government and the Presidency will effectively have muzzled the media to silence while denying the public well articulated opinions, news, commentaries and all other benefits of a responsible free press.

For starters, in professional media houses, the editorial and commercial departments work as distinct entities. This means editorial decisions are not influenced by commercial interests and vice versa. But threats to cash inflow through cancellation of advertising orders have variously been dangled to bewildered editors whenever an expose depicting government and/or senior government officials is about to be published.

Effectively, this is what Mr Matiangi’s new advertising agency will be aligned to achieve. It will decide which media house gets what slice of the advertising pie, probably pegged on patronage, favouritism and personal relationships. In its line of duty, media has many times rubbed the three arms of Government the wrong way. Sometimes storylines pursued by various newsrooms have not necessarily been rosy to the Presidency, Opposition, Parliament and the Judiciary.At one time, a rather upset Deputy President William Ruto said he no longer read newspapers and averred that what is published is fit for the gutter and the butcheries for wrapping meat.

The Judiciary was recently on the media spot light with revelations of high-handedness, alleged corruption and internal strife. Sadly, all the offices and individuals described above have benefited immensely from a robust, free press. Some have run media houses, besides being major shareholders. DP Ruto was propelled to political stardom by media at a time when Kanu had blacklisted him along with Kipruto Kirwa for their audacity to challenge the party’s hierarchy. Of course no one, including media practitioners can lay claim to sainthood in as far as balancing of stories is concerned. Like other professionals domiciled in Kenya, rogue media practitioners exist.

But with the various mechanisms and legislation put in place by the same Government, media practice is well regulated. Because of the archaic and skewed belief that the media is the common enemy, it will make political sense to hit them below the belt with spiked shoes to effect maximum pain.

Matiang’i and his principals must, however, be reminded that the advertising budget they hold is entrusted to them by Kenyans, who toil day and night to power the economy.

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