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For journalists, a lot to hope for, a lot to fear

By Andrew Kipkemboi | August 31st 2020 at 08:15:57 GMT +0300

A section of journalists flees from teargas lobbed inside city hall on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, after the police prevented a section of MCAs from forcefully entering the office of Speaker Beatrice Elachi to serve her with a notice to vacate office over what they termed as gross misconduct. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

A cynical Kenyan developed a montage of recent and past newspaper headlines to depict the sorry state of things and to demonstrate how out-of-touch our political class and the ruling elite are from the reality: Civil servants to take 75 per cent salary cut from January, screamed one; Sh1.5 billion pension set up for Raila, ex-VPs, shouted another…; Ex-Speakers to get Sh120 million on top of retirement perks, another put it, not hiding the irony; Parliament okays Sh100k a month for ex-MPs, howled yet another.

How have the media fared in the last 10 years since the Constitution was unveiled? Put another way, has the 2010 Constitution made it easy for us to be the public’s watchdog exposing the rot in the society and celebrating the triumphs of Kenyans?

On behalf of the public, the press engages in ceaseless muckraking by challenging the politicians’ failings and lapse in judgment. In a properly functioning democracy, media are never the alternative government, neither are they alternative opposition. They just moderate the relationship between the governed and the leaders.

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They shine the light on the hidden ridges in government and provide an outlet for grievance, which the 2010 Constitution strongly advocates. Media the world over are a force for good or bad; oftentimes they are a force for good. They nudge the masses, they appreciate cause and effect.

For example, the Constitution outlines the role of the three arms of government, yet we have constantly witnessed the subjugation of Parliament by the Executive and the unabashed bullying of the Judiciary.

Yet the 2010 Constitution has a sprinkling of good intentions which unless life is breathed into them, would all come to naught.

To guarantee them a smooth run when they came into office in 2013, Uhuru and Ruto set out to first control the politics and then the media following in the Singapore model. Unfortunately, theirs has become a bad example of the much-celebrated city-state model. That Singaporean model at least provided security and prosperity to its people. Its former leader the late Lee Kuan Yew wanted to have the national media cake and eat it too.

Taking ownership of the fledgeling newspaper industry and offering it free of charge was meant to neutralise media’s natural reflex to intrude and at times embarrass the government. At the same time, he wanted a press that could “report, interpret and analyse” — his development schemes and plans — “like the best in most developed and freest countries.”

“An unthinking press is not good for Singapore,” said Lee’s successor Goh Chok Tong. In Singapore, its leaders kept the press: They knew they would need it someday.

Perhaps as Cherian George says in Freedom from the Press, Lee knew that “dictatorships don’t last.” That “in the long run, the divergence of interests between leaders and led rips regimes apart.”

When they took office in 2013, the Jubilee administration devised ways and means to weaken, cripple and then silence the voice of free media. Mercifully — and because most Kenyans appreciate the role of the media — their schemes have failed.

Jubilee shrugged off the voice of reason from the media, the civil society and even the religious sector choosing to listen to the strident voices in their midst.

The Government Advertising Agency and MyGov were borne out of a deliberate — and desperate — attempt to control the message. He who pays the piper, calls the tune. They repudiated media as patronising, out of touch and elitist and depending on who you asked, partisan.

When everybody else seems happy — thanks to the March 2018 handshake — it is a vigilant press that takes forward the discussion about the need for reforms for better governance to uplift the lives of all Kenyans; not just a coterie of ruling elite.

A flourishing democracy terribly requires the Fourth Estate not least now when the interests of the political class have merged. The media have asked time and again how come those that supported the draft Constitution in 2010 find it odious now while those who found it unpalatable are falling over themselves in support of it.

Should we lose media, who will speak for Wanjiku? Certainly not the shifty, self-absorbed, self-preserving political class; certainly not the cowed civil society smarting from a vicious State-sponsored crackdown. What other institution — other than the Church or mosque or temple — has told you the truth, boldly?

Because it records history, media reinforces the benefit of hindsight, which equalises humanity; the knowledge that we will account for whatever we do now in the not-so-distant future. We remind society that the past catches up with us somehow; that we ought to be more reflective, dispassionate in our dealings.

Mr Kipkemboi is an Associate Editor at The Standard. @AndrewKipkemboi


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