Democratic space: Media must exercise freedom with caution

Thursday, August 15th, 2019 00:00 |
Media. Photo/Courtesy

If there is one institution that has enjoyed the biggest dividends due to expansion of the democratic space, it is our media. Ever since re-introduction of multi-party politics in 1991 after repeal of Section 2A that had made Kenya a de jure one-party State, the media has had a field day.

Actually, it is largely politicians that have suffered the brunt of regimes that brooked no opposition. Oftentimes, journalists took the blow mainly for being perceived as hirelings or messengers of enemies of the State, rather than principled fighters of human rights and democracy.

Indeed, some journalists cannot believe they are still alive after altercations with some extremely powerful forces and personalities. Literally, there were some people who were untouchable. That was also the saving grace for the Fourth Estate, who hardly ventured where the eagles dare. 

Although only   few journalists have lost their lives as a direct result of State repression, several have suffered grave injuries or loss of livelihoods after being hounded out of their jobs, being frustrated into delinquency                  and ultimately to their graves.  

To understand how the Kenyan media have changed, you just need to take a walk on the streets and browse the myriad publications on the newsstands. They are stacked with screaming headlines proclaiming all manner of allegations.

With the exception of the First Family, no one else is safe. Not after the apparently State-sponsored terror on the Standard Media Group by the so called Artur Brothers in 2006, and the then First Lady the late Lucy Kibaki storming Nation Media.

Electronic media news, that is radio and TV, are narratives of the bizarre. Forget about the so called TV sirens, whose main terms of reference seems to attract viewership numbers. Most of the news comprises tales similar to ‘man bite dog’. It is all about murder, rape and misfortune galore.

Indeed, our media as a whole survive  and thrive  on a daily fair of politics and sleaze. I do not blame them. Either by conditioning, or by default, Kenyan audiences have become insatiable, even when it is clear that this is symptomatic of an utter breakdown of law and order. 

The Kenyan social media is a no-go zone for the weak at heart. Like some of their mainstream counterparts, blogs are loaded with news of the bad and the ugly straight out of a hellhole!

The status quo is an indictment of, not just the profession, but media trainers in journalism schools. 

As a journalism lecturer in a couple of university journalism schools, I find that many of the students who take up media and public relations studies are in it for the glamour. They have no idea of media’s role in a developing society.  

Let us just say the media practitioners have found themselves with so much freedom, and have been unable to handle, or control it. Much of the censorship is internal due to competing commercial and political interests by both managers and owners.

It is time for the media to reclaim their cardinal role of advocating for social, economic and political change. While media owners are profit-driven, journalists worth their salt must force them to strike a balance between informing and entertaining. - The writer is a communication expert, and public policy analyst  — [email protected]

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