Selective awarding of MyGov threatens freedom of speech

Awarding the advertising contract solely to The Star newspaper by the government has elicited howls of protests from media practitioners and human rights groups who see the move as another underhand scheme to control the media. 

That Kenyan media would be fighting to exhale after 60 years of independence is a disheartening situation that shows we are yet to eternalise basic democratic principles.

Ostensibly, the aim of awarding MyGov account to The Star originated from a decision by the Jubilee cabinet to centralise government advertising. To this end, the Jubilee administration created the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) tasked with the responsibility of consolidating government advertising initiatives.

After the creation of GAA, all State corporations, universities, and institutions under the national government were instructed to channel all their advertising through GAA. On receipt of adverts from various public institutions, GAA’s role was to publish a MyGov pullout which was sent to various media houses.    

In the beginning, the Jubilee administration awarded MyGov publication to all the major dailies indiscriminately. The ongoing uproar over MyGov publication has arisen because the Kenya Kwanza administration has decided to limit awarding the contract exclusively to The Star.

At face value, the idea of centralizing government media spending appears like a reasonable way of injecting efficiency into the management of public funds. At a time when the media are full of reports from both the Auditor General and Controller of Budget of scandalous misuse of public funds, any creative re-engineering of government processes to seal off financial leakages is welcome.

Given historical antipathy towards the media by successive administrations, many Kenyans are suspicious MyGov initiative is just another scheme to control the media. The negative attitude towards the media was best summed up by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s disparaging comment that newspapers were only good for wrapping meat.

 Since GAA was formed during Uhuru’s administration it is logical many Kenyans are suspicious of an arrangement that gives the government ammunition to weaponise the lucrative and much-sought-after advertising budget.  

The Kenya Kwanza government’s sensitivity to criticism from both the Opposition and the media has been especially acute. Kenyans still remember how in its early days the property of the former president was invaded by hired goons and his goats stolen for allegedly sponsoring nationwide demonstrations against the KK government. 

During the same period, the offices of the leader of the Opposition were also attacked by stone-throwing mobs for leading demonstrations against the high cost of living. Such unprecedented hooliganism reflected a leadership acutely allergic to criticism and capable, without reservation, of employing crude methods to punish critics.

The potential threat posed by centralising government media spend in GAA became apparent when a Cabinet secretary threatened to sack any public officer that posts any advertisement in the Daily Nation. The newspaper had attracted the ire of the CS for the crime of carrying stories that portrayed the government in a bad light. 

To the CS the newspaper deserved to be denied government advertising spend because it was behaving like the Opposition. The fact that “behaving like the opposition” is not a crime in Kenyan legal statutes was lost on the CS who is clearly incapable of suspending personal prejudices while exercising public authority. 

That an important media house can be threatened by a public officer acting from personal prejudice is a good reason to interrogate the suitability of the new advertising policy in relation to the fundamental rights of the citizens.

Besides the Nation, The Standard has fared equally badly in the new era of centralised media spend. According to its editors, the daily has been denied advertising contracts twice and payment held up for publishing articles that did not go down well with the government. The consequence of such mistreatment by the government is to encourage self-censorship by the media in order to balance commercial and editorial interests.

While weaponisation of the media spend may seem like a political masterstroke by the political class with something to hide, the cost to the nation is incalculable. Given its limited circulation, the most immediate and obvious casualty of awarding MyGov contract to a single paper are citizens who do not have access to The Star. Since MyGov publishes job opportunities, tenders, and contracts. Such public information should be widely circulated in the spirit of fairness and equity.

Ultimately, the primary objective of any government initiative should be the optimisation of the greater good. Since no one has a monopoly of knowledge, reason demands that citizens are exposed to competing ideas so that the best ideas rise to the top.

Conventional wisdom in the 21st century is that human progress occurs when a society is able to replace old ideas with new ones. After 60 years of independence, these observations should be seared in our psyche such that attempts to control the media should be a thing of the past. 

-Mr Githieya is a political and economic analyst