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Spare a thought for journalists in these times of disruption

COMMENTARY
By Churchill Otieno | May 3rd 2020

Journalism, like all labours of love, is not for the faint hearted.

It is for this reason that today, amid gloom and heavy clouds, we find time and make energy to celebrate committed colleagues who remain true to the task.

They stand in the face of immense pressure; from bosses, politicians, rotten colleagues, spin masters, influence peddlers and new knowledge that grows in ever stronger bursts.

They have to contend with silver-tongued know-it-alls, debonair thieves, two-faced politicians, self-obsessed pseudo-experts and false prophets. They are humble in greatness, humming softly in their notebooks and on both sides of the camera.

Others artfully but silently polish and sharpen on the subs and production desks in print, broadcast and online, and some strategise, innovate, lead, train and mentor.

Today is a day to ponder these heroes for they have stood strong to hold power to account during the most trying and turbulent periods in journalism ever.

As we mark the World Press Freedom Day, under the very apt theme of ‘Journalism without Fear or Favour’, the Kenya Editors Guild has a message for the citizens, their leaders and journalists.

First, some context. Critical journalism is a public service that has, until now, mainly thrived as private media business. The structure of this business has been such that the advertiser pays for citizens to get trusted reporting and analyses.

Fact, however, is that advertising revenue has migrated with a sizable chunk getting exported, hence it can no longer support strong journalism. 

A sobering statistic is that profitability of Kenya’s mainstream media has shrunk by an estimated 75 per cent in five years!

In practical terms, therefore, there are fewer experienced journalists available to do the public duty, hence the watchdog is getting smaller at a time when graft and disinformation is all the rage hence more sophisticated vigilance is needed.

Ultimately, this shrinkage in the watchdog role puts Kenya’s democracy in jeopardy - unless urgent policy and legislative measures are taken. No democracy survives without accountability journalism. 

So the question is, how can Kenya protect its journalism so that it serves citizens without fear or favour?

The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged humanity through poor health and savage impact, but few realise that the media, too, is its patient.

In a matter of weeks, the pandemic has put public journalism into serious focus by testing its ability to live up to its tri-faceted democratic mandate: providing timely, credible and important information; offering a robust forum for the public/citizens to debate key questions; and holding power to account. 

The ravages of the pandemic on the media have exposed and escalated sustainability challenges in the industry that need urgent policy attention and intervention if the constitutional duty citizens expect of the media is to be delivered effectively going forward. 

The Kenya Editors Guild, on behalf of senior editors, but also of journalists and the media fraternity, has engaged the Executive and the Legislature on many of these questions.

The guild has submitted policy proposals outlining short- and long-term measures to protect the industry. It has discussed with the National Assembly and the Senate legislative reforms to protect accountability journalism.

And it has demonstrated to the Judiciary how pre-emptive gag orders and predatory court awards suffocate free media.

The bottomline, however, is that journalists must innovate. Indeed, away from the public glare, all the key newsrooms are engaged in major projects to find new ways to remain sustainable.

Some of the new ideas may take good journalism out of reach of the poor, which is concerning.

Urgently, those who benefit from good journalism must contribute to the expensive process needed to produce it. The State must put in place measures to ensure Google, Facebook and other international tech platforms that ride on locally produced public interest content are contributing to its cost. Similarly, measures are needed to ensure monies owed to the media by public sector entities are paid without delay on an ongoing basis.

And there are tax breaks that have been adopted by democracies around the world to sustain their journalism.

Today we bring our case to the citizens, for whom we are messengers. Protecting journalism is not a matter only for journalists. The public needs journalism that it can trust, therefore it is the most critical stakeholder in fixing this problem.

Journalists, to help this, have a duty to report on media issues too. Changes and realities need to be discussed openly in the public interest. Solutions must of necessity be checked against the principles of journalism without fear or favour.

Churchill Otieno is the president of the Kenya Editors Guild. [email protected]

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