Kenya has no shortage of politicians who try to suck up all the oxygen of publicity in the room.
With the common view being that “all publicity is good publicity,” many of our leaders have manifestly embraced the notion that it is better to be talked about than not, even if it means doing and saying patently ludicrous, false, disgraceful, and disreputable things. In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycles, any coverage, no matter how critical, can help keep them in the public eye. This realisation has led to a dangerous normalisation of behaviour that should be seen as unacceptable.
Given the warped logic of this attention economy that rewards the outrageous and the outlandish with generous servings of free media exposure, we have created a circus where our public figures and those seeking that status are emboldened to push the boundaries of decency and civility to extreme levels. No matter how you slice it, it’s performance art.
By dint of his bombastic, provocative, and often insulting proclamations, incendiary tweets, and a demeanour that can only be described as unbecoming of his office, Moses Kuria, the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Investments, Trade, and Industry, stands out as an undisputed maestro of this absurd art.
It’s an admittedly low bar, but CS Kuria has quickly emerged as the most divisive figure in President William Ruto’s Cabinet. His headline-grabbing antics are too numerous and depressing to list, so suffice it to say that the Moses Kuria Show is the gift that keeps on giving to the insatiable gods of the news cycle. Though it is hard to keep up, his latest offence is telling Kenyans unhappy with the high cost of fuel to “drill their own oil wells.” It’s a particularly unfeeling and disrespectful statement to come from the mouth of a lavishly compensated public official at the height of a biting cost-of-living crisis.
Predictably, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua is sticking by Kuria's side. "This Moses Kuria is our son. I have seen other people saying that he should be fired. If he is fired, where would he go?" asked the DP while speaking during the burial of Mau Mau veteran Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima in Nyeri County.
"You press people you don't understand this region,” he added. "We are united in this region, you don't know us," added the DP.
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The appeal for ethnic solidarity is perhaps Kuria’s best bet. Kuria, after all, owes a lot of his political currency to being an unabashed tribal bigot who, in past tweets and statements, has trafficked in venomous ethnic slurs that earned him several citations from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.
Yet, asset or not, there are signs that Kuria's antics are wearing thin on his masters. In a Freudian slip for the ages during the just-concluded three-city US-Kenya Trade Roadshow that showcased opportunities for investors exploring business and investment opportunities in Kenya, former East African Community Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed was reportedly introduced as "Cabinet Secretary and Economic Advisor." Mohamed’s ascent, some say, is irrefutable evidence that Kuria's days are numbered. I am not so sure of that myself. Besides the appeal for ethnic solidarity, I think Kuria has another ace up his sleeve: An uncanny knack for preserving his relevance by deftly manipulating media coverage.
As aforementioned, the media landscape in Kenya, as in many other countries, is driven by an attention economy that drives our digital, print, and broadcast outlets. Outrageous and sensational stories tend to attract more viewers, readers, and clicks, which, in turn, generate revenue for media organisations. Kuria has mastered the art of exploiting this system to his advantage, knowing that his controversial statements and actions will ensure he remains in the spotlight. However, this approach is detrimental to the quality of public discourse and undermines the credibility of the media. In the interest of preserving the precisely little sanity that is left in the public realm, the media has to inoculate itself against Kuria and his ilk.
At a time when public trust in the media is already fragile, it is crucial that media practitioners and consumers of news take a hard look at how we cover and respond to individuals like Kuria. We should be careful not to normalise the abnormal. I am not advocating for a media blackout of CS Kuria or any other politician; sunshine, after all, is the best disinfectant. I am instead championing the kind of nuanced and rigorous media coverage that doesn’t allow such cynical actors to translate outrageous actions and utterances into visibility and influence over our lives. While it is essential for the media to remain objective and hold public figures accountable, in the case of Kuria, this means not just reporting on his antics but also providing context and analysis that exposes the harm he may be causing to public discourse and unity.
"Truthful, not neutral" refers to a journalistic approach that prioritises reporting the facts and truth, even if it means taking a stance or being critical rather than maintaining strict neutrality. Christiane Amanpour, who recently celebrated 40 years at CNN, has embodied this approach in her career. Amanpour has consistently pursued truth and accuracy in her reporting. Her dedication to truth over neutrality has made her a respected and influential figure in the field of journalism.
Undoubtedly, there are many Kenyan journalists who have already adopted this approach, but the imperative now is to swell their ranks. Kuria's actions and behaviour demand nothing less than a formidable counterforce coursing through the veins of our media ecosystem before the contagion spreads further. By unwaveringly adhering to the tenets of "truthful, not neutral" journalism, we can actively contribute to a more enlightened and principled public discourse while steadfastly holding individuals like Kuria accountable for their deeds.