Let's get talking again on media freedom

Media is under threat. [iStockphoto]

World Radio Day was marked on Tuesday. It brought new conversations around free speech and the future of the media industry in its entirety.

Then come Wednesday at the sidelines of an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa, there was a session on revenue and editorial integrity – balancing sustainability with journalistic ethics.

If you’re old enough, you will agree that the protection of free speech has come a long way. More and more, it’s bolder and daring even in authoritarian societies. Also, regimes and leaders have remained different much as they get to power and exit. There are those who fully embrace free speech. Some are averse while others still blow hot and cold.

For the mass media, it’s been a mixed bag, one would say. Reporters Without Borders notes that as per last year’s press freedom index – after looking at the working environment for journalists in 180 countries and territories – the situation is ‘very serious’ in 31 countries, ‘difficult’ in 42, ‘problematic’ in 55, and ‘satisfactory’ in 52.

Locally, we marvel at the media’s journey. Many will recall President Uhuru Kenyatta’s days when there was a retrograde view of newspapers, with the ‘meat wrapping’ remark that couldn’t be more out of order. Journalists were likened to monkeys with loaded guns!

Then there were security laws that criminalised journalism on vague national security fears. One was the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Act that outlawed transmission of ‘offensive’ or ‘menacing’ posts over telecommunications devices.

There were many other gag attempts by MPs but, gladly, they came to naught. In August 2017, the State shut down TV stations for 10 days despite a court order. Their sin? Covering an opposition rally. Some editors got trapped in a whirlpool of power games.

In the lead-up to every election in Kenya, there’s always embellished attention on newsrooms, only that it never offers a balanced perspective into the actual or perceived coverage biases. We’ve heard that the media was exceptionally biased in 2022. There have been insults and threats best demonstrated by CS Moses Kuria.

Fast forward to 2024, a decision to direct government print advertising to one media firm has left a sour taste. But State mandarins say the decision wasn’t aimed at muzzling independent journalism. No need for speculation.

Here’s food for thought from a scholarly viewpoint. Does State advertising attract public goodwill for a media house? Between money and audience trust, what builds credibility? And, in the face of digital shocks and shrinking advertisers’ spending power, does the big stick help?

Similarly, why is media power still tantalising us in today’s information age? And, do media houses benefit from ruthlessly competing with each other rather than working as an ensemble bound by public interest? Finally, can ‘politicised’ State advertising turn into a poisoned chalice?

These questions need swift answers yet two things are clear. One, the independence of newsrooms is sacrosanct. Two, print is here to stay despite the growing fragmentation. What’s required is to try out diverse formats with compelling premium content. They can also bring in multimedia and embrace feasible business models.

Indian reporter Ipsita Chakravarty once said that in the face of barefaced challenges in the media, ‘we are not alone.’ Chakravarty, my former course mate in Oxford, correctly believes that since media has public goodwill, it will nevertheless survive. Regimes shouldn’t think it’s a pushover.  The watchdog role, informing and educating merit protection of the Constitution. Nothing should crowd our thinking of how journalism can lead to good governance and prosperity. Democracy icon Nelson Mandela said: “An independent press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”

But the Fourth Estate must be above reproach. That way, it can support President William Ruto’s progressive agenda through public interest journalism. An informed citizenry is a responsive one. Let’s discuss press freedoms often. A free responsible media makes us thrive.

-The writer is a communications practitioner. X: @markoloo 

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