Lest we forget, free press did not come easy

Friday, May 15th, 2020 00:00 |
Media personnel at work. Photo/Courtesy

We celebrated the World Press Freedom Day last week. It is about 30 years since the UN recognised the drive by journalists to ease government control over their work.

A lot has changed since then. Three decades ago, the world was divided in a cold war that had the champions of free press on the one side and those who saw a free press as a danger to their hold on power on the other.

The side of the free press was championed by then the leader of the free world, United States President Ronald Reagan.

On the other hand, Russia, then under Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Eastern bloc, led the group defined free press rather differently.

African countries fell in between and chose which side to fall on depending on what favours they were seeking from either the West or the East. How things change! 

Today the divide between the champions of free press and those who do not care is not that clear.

The free world has no leader today. The president of the US is no longer a champion of a free press. Journalism and reality shows are different. 

Russia still plays the role it has always played. The clear divide between the East and the West that existed then is no more.

The threats that we had then have not completely gone away. If anything, they have increased.

In Africa then, there was no clear ideology of the press. African leaders chose their sides depending on who was buttering their bread.

It was against this background that African journalists — it is worth remembering that the World Press Freedom Day resulted from a drive by African journalists to shake off the control of leaders — championed a day to celebrate the world’s press. WPFD is Africa’s gift to the world.

Kenyan editors were at the heart of this drive in Windhoek. Some of those editors still walk our streets and these celebrations should once in a while bring these soldiers of yore to the celebratory podium to wipe their sweat.

In Kenya, one would be confused at discussions around the world freedom of the press day.

This is a day for journalists to champion the ideals of free press. It is about unfettered opportunity to form thoughts and express them without let or hindrance.

The enemies of today are different. The platforms for telling one’s story, thanks to technology, are not shrinking but rather expanding. 

Take a trip back to 1990, at the height of the Nyayo era when the WFP day was being debated.

There were limited options for free expression.  A handful of daily papers, a few magazines, one radio station and two TV channels. 

Throw yourself into the media ocean of today. Thanks to technology we have over 85 TV channels and counting, nearly 200 radio stations and counting, even the daily papers are more than we had then, and now one of them is even free.  The magazines are, however, gone. In its place we have online platforms.

Yes, the fight of our predecessors was not in vain. They fought at a difficult time, when a bullet could be put through your head, you could be thrown down a window to your death or a bomb could come through your mail as happened to Dele Giwa in Nigeria. 

But these days the challenge at nearly every media conclave is about the health of the balance sheet of the media houses. While this is important, it is however a challenge for the MBA holders in the newsroom. 

The art of story telling, which is the heart of journalism, has lost champions. The chorus is not for the free press but rather for a financially healthy press. Let us be careful lest we leave journalism behind. —The writer is dean, School of communications, Daystar University

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