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Watch out for forces keen to turn off the light of media

By Churchill Otieno | May 2nd 2021
Journalists in a procession along Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru town to mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2019. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

All keen observers would notice a systematic but sustained squeezing of the media space in Kenya. The sponsors, proponents, and implementors of this scheme have proved most adept at using soft force, singing media freedom the loudest during the day before sliding into the shadowy beds with the attackers at night.

As the globe marks the World Press Freedom Day today, Kenyans have a moment to reflect on how to get their media to serve them better, and to zap the forces of darkness so keen to turn off media lights.

Away from the notice of many, the media in Kenya is dealing with integral challenges as it fights to serve and grow public trust and remould itself given today’s realities on information flow, knowledge economy and technological disruption.

This fight, however, is further complicated by an encumbered civil society and the emergence of the gangster politician who is only too happy to grow a cursory constituency.

We must resist sliding into Orwellian Oceania. It should worry us that, somehow, public memories of past heroes and past liberties are fading each year. More and more people are increasingly bored, many are indifferent, and some so intolerant that active exchange of hate on social media is Nineveh.

This must worry us into action.

An innovation straight off Napoleon absolutism, the Government Advertising Agency, is little more than a velvet glove, the poisoned chalice targeted at a people much thirsty despite today’s ‘infodemia’. Woe unto you should your rag run a story that comes in unpreferred light; word will come quick on just how unhappy the Government Inspector is, and MyGov must rest.

A rest that then denies some media houses badly needed revenue to keep their newsrooms up.

Of course, it was a mistake to grow so dependent on the State insert. But that is history. We must instead forge ahead and find ways to fund our media so that it is sustainably independent.

I know for sure that a lot of good work is going on down this road, even though it's early days. It will be a while before the business remodelling happening in the industry comes round; a while to allow the required investment to fill up, the reconfiguration of the methods to take hold, and the retooling of the talent to mature.

Usually, this mix of factors beckons a truly independent referee to look ahead and encourage laws and policies that would see the germination of a new media culture that ensures protection of the public interest.

But no, what do we have instead? Our referee – the Media Council of Kenya – has been claimed by the State publicly and privately. Worse, in spite of having in place an independent board identified by the industry, the Council seems only too willing to acquiesce to Government whims.

What a shock it has been these last four months as forces fighting media freedom came for one board member – Tabitha Mutemi – and the Council rolled over and nudged it on. Instead of a protest and a rallying of progressive voices to push back, MCK joined the choir.

Every single State official who spoke on the matter wanted Mutemi out. All industry voices were united in calling out the overreach and interference.

The National Assembly stood tall to swat the mischief when last Wednesday (April 28, 2021) it threw out an ill-conceived petition that had been dishonourably handled by its communications committee. It was a great day for a free media.

Further, regulation of media content is a mandate of MCK. Strangely though, all recent incidences have seen more activity by the State-controlled Communications Authority than by the independent regulator. Why would an entity set in place via a globally acclaimed coregulatory mechanism cede such hard-won liberty?

The industry cannot insist that MCK remains free, not if it is so willing to enjoin Government. But the free media would have to then find other ways to hold public trust and assure enforcement of the code of conduct of journalists without handing over our souls to the powerful and the privileged.

Thankfully, no bullet or missile can ever shoot down a word. Any word. So, journalists must keep at it, finding the facts that the powerful would rather were not found, and throwing lots of light on it.

It helps that our burden is shared globally. The world has resolved to focus on economic viability of news media, the transparency of internet companies, and enhanced media and information literacy that enable people to value, defend and demand journalism as a vital part of information as a public good. There is hope.


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