What State aims to achieve by starving media of advertising

Broadcasting and Telecommunication PS Edward Kisiang'ani. [Wilberforce Okwiri]

What happens when the government decides not to advertise with private media? Naom Chomsky and Edward Herman in their famous book 'Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media' provide interesting insights into what to expect.

First, the government as one of the main advertisers in the media uses its financial power as a carrot and stick. Media depend largely on advertisement to sustain their operations. In countries such as Kenya where large private advertisers are limited, the government’s decision to restrict advertising to its public broadcaster means that jobs are at risk.

If job creation is a goal of a government, creating avoidable redundancy is not a smart solution. The spiral effect is that students aspiring to work in the media industry will have to rethink if they can pass through the narrow gate to get the limited jobs available.

Second, Chomsky and Herman, argue that governments use advertising as a power to control and shape the narratives media produce. Common sense dictates that media are compelled to give positive press to the government lest they bite the hand that feeds them. In this regard, the dominant headlines will have to scream niceties about the source of their funding. In effect, the citizens have to feed into government propaganda couched in a language of objectivity.

Third, besides being fed with what the government wants citizens to know and believe, the scholars demonstrate how critical voices are suppressed to serve and reinforce elite interests. This way, the media perpetuates the views of the elite and those in power. Of course, the natural tendency of governments is to control news media to minimise the demand for accountability and transparency.

Fourth, while the government has the power to brutally run down media, there are many risks and lost opportunities for governments hell-bent on starving media advertising as a means to control critical voices. In this advent of the ever-emerging social media platforms, the government's averse to being called to accountability and transparency will find it difficult to sustain public believability.

One reason why alternative platforms such as theatre become platforms of protest is because when the public does not believe the public broadcaster, any alternative news outlet will have more followers than official channels. It's like an opaque company executive who does not allow free speech only for staff to turn to grapevine as the main source of information. 

Fifth, governments come and go, at least in democracies. Stifling press freedom through what Chomsky and Herman call a “flak filter” is short-sightedness. The reason why BBC continues to be a leading news media outlet is because it is funded by the citizens, the British. The public broadcaster is meant to give accurate, educative, informative and relevant content.

It is not a mouthpiece of government. We have to cherish freedom of speech, the right of citizens to demand accountability and transparency from their government and informative programmes that promote public interest. Denying private media advertising revenue will lead to citizen disinterest in government affairs.

Sixth, advertising in friendly media only may prove to be a golden chance for the new generation of journalists who do not understand the origin of multi-party democracy in Kenya to start valuing their profession. It will stretch them to go the extra mile in authenticating news, investigating public interest stories and rendering the public compelling content that will attract even more audiences. We have many cases of online content that is more popular than content in mainstream media.

Dr Mokua is the Executive Director, the Loyola Centre for Media and Communication