In contest between the Press and government, freedom wins

When journalists took to the streets in protest of their freedom, demanding an end to harassment by state agents. [Boniface Kendo, Standard]

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, said thus: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” Simply put, Jefferson trusted the Fourth Estate more than the government to run the affairs of a country.

So, the question is, a pissing contest between the press and the government, who wins? Against the chagrin of any regime, experience has it that the media, on whose side the citizens are mostly aligned, wins.

Today, we celebrate the World Press Freedom Day. The celebrations come at a time when the country is grappling with, among other things, never-before-seen flash floods that have so far killed people and rendered others homeless, wrecked infrastructure, wildlife habitats, and vegetation.

The Ministry of Education, early this week, deferred the opening of schools until next week. The Roads, Transport, and Public Works ministry is also hardly hit – the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) leakage exposed where it, seemingly, hurt the most.

So far, journalists involved in covering these events have clashed with the government and the weather pangs, and they have also been exposed to greater risks than ever before.

Before the flash floods, the long rain season began with a fake fertiliser exposé implicating the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPD) top managers and government. The exposé put investigative journalist John-Allan Namu and the whole news media, which had picked and run with the story, at loggerheads with the government agencies.

Later, the Senate Agriculture Committee summoned the journalist on the same. Generally, the government was uncomfortable with how the news media handled the expositions.

The JKIA leaking roofs exposition did not go well with Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen. He engaged Larry Madowo, another journalist, in a bitter mano a mano.

The first quarter of 2024 also saw the government withdraw State advertisements from private radio and television stations and directed all advertisements to the State-owned MyGov publication and KBC. It has been a challenging first quarter for the members of the fourth estate.

So, given the state of the relationship between the government and the media, where is the hope? I think that to be at peace with the fourth estate and citizens who trust it, the government must come to terms with a few truths about the press and society.

First, the government must view the press as a primary stakeholder in building a strong democracy. It is time for the government to harness the potential among the fourth estate members to contribute to a better democratic space and freedoms that benefit all.

Secondly, the government must learn to use the news media for its own good. Having crisis communication in place to clarify issues that journalists misinterpret is better than mounting defensive and offensive actions whenever the press steps on their sores.

As such, being ready and willing to provide information regarding crises and matters of public interest to the press can, to a large extent, reduce the perceived misreporting and painful censorship.

Censorship from the media toward any government spills over to the citizens. For instance, we all know that the ongoing flash floods are, largely, a result of weather patterns and the impact of climate change, but we blame it all on the administration. How can the government handle this?

Truth is that exploring nonviolent approaches to tackling the press has benefits to the government. Sometimes, the press is flatly wrong in its reporting, the reality is that citizens will trust the press more than the government at a time of crisis. That is why, in such situations, seeking a relationship is better than the war of ego. Let that reality sink!