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Four top TV stations have been off air for about three weeks following a dispute with Kenya’s telecommunications regulator over digital migration. The plight of these mainstream media outlets has attracted little sympathy from the public, as Kenyans are increasingly losing confidence in corporate media as reliable allies in their democratic struggles.

I do not want to claim to understand all there is to understand as far as the intrigues of Kenya’s digital migration goes. In Kenya, it is generally naïve to take things at face value. More so, when talking about a sector like the mainstream media.

There could probably also be more than one way to look at it. Nevertheless, the situation some of the mainstream media houses find themselves in at the moment could probably be considered a good example of the relevance of the saying, “When they came for so and so; and so and so; and so and so;…. you didn’t speak. When they came for you…”

For some time now, the impartiality and objectivity of some of the Kenyan media houses in reporting has been considered by many as rather wanting. Just to give a few examples:

Some of us can still recall the press conference during the tallying of Kenya’s 2013 general elections results at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. After a briefing by the elections officials, the journalists present were asked whether they had any questions. No journalist raised a voice. There was pin-drop silence. It remains the only time in my life to witness a situation where NO journalist had a question after at a press conference. That silence spoke volumes and the trend that followed thereafter should have been pretty much expected.

It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that a good section of Kenyan mainstream media settled for what could be considered as “safe journalism” a bit before, during, and soon after the 2013 general elections.

During the election, the reporting covered little more than the “long queues of voters” and “the patience of the voters on the queues”. This, despite the fact that there were reported cases of irregularities in various places that the media could have picked up. The (mis?)interpretation of peace at whatever cost seemed to mean that even the truth had to be sacrificed for peace to prevail – probably having bought into the notion that Kenyans could not handle the truth, a stand that could be said played well into the hands of any people who might have been interested in rigging the elections.

The media also gave a blackout to press conferences called by the opposition to bring to the fore issues at hand. The press conferences were consequently covered only by some international media houses or through social media. Thank God for alternative media.

If indeed Kenya’s 2013 presidential elections were not above board, the media could in essence be said to have been an accomplice – maybe not so much by commission, but probably more through omission in regards to their role as the “Fourth Estate” - through their complacency. For in journalism, where the principal role of the profession is to inform, an omission of the nature we are talking about here could very well be considered to be professional dishonesty. Then whether or not this situation ever changed thereafter is debatable.

For one is quickly reminded of the June 2013 media breakfast hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House and the enhanced slant in reporting that seemed to result from this. Not to be forgotten is the speed and “efficiency” with which the same media picked up the repetitive airing of the “accept and move on” clarion call after the elections. After the equally questionable 2007 presidential election results, it had been “This Country is Bigger Than Any One Individual… Maybe, we should now be asking ourselves what the call will be in 2017…

One appreciates that there probably have been varied contributing issues at play; and these could include intimidation, political relevance, business interests, personal interests and anything else in-between. Yet, I am still reminded of this saying that goes: “If an elephant steps on a mouse’s tail and I say nothing, the mouse is unlikely to appreciate my silence.” (And obviously, I am neither comparing anyone to an elephant, nor to a mouse. Just an analogy.)

All this while, though, it seems these media houses didn’t realize that one other thing that they were probably managing to do was to dent their own image as independent platforms, and eroding public confidence by a reasonably good number of Kenyans who previously perceived them as reliable sources of news.

Necessity invents. In an age endowed with alternative sources of news other than just mainstream media, a void was therefore created that has to a large extent been filled since. Not to mention the goodwill among a section of viewers they (mainstream media) may have lost. In a sense they may have in the process of seeking relevance, ironically, hedged themselves out to a corner with a “reduced market share”. And even as I say this, the truth is that there are individuals within these establishments that have then as now chosen not to remain complacent and so have stood out differently for their contribution to seeking and exposing the truth as part of their work. They no doubt deserve special acknowledgement.

The affected media houses have complained that they are being frustrated out of business. Interestingly, they are in a battle with arms of the same political administration they assisted to ascend to power (through their omission, commission or otherwise). And it is the same opposition which, when it was convenient, they given a blackout, that are having to speak up for them.

When a court ruling around the very contentious Security Act was given at the beginning of this year, the media, interestingly reduced its significance, referring to the issue as “A Win for the Opposition”, despite the fact that by it was much more than a contest between the opposition and the government. They probably conveniently chose not to analyse and acknowledge the “interconnectedness" of that Act with their own press freedom, the rights of Kenyans and dictatorship. That Kenya has this year dropped 10 places in World Press Freedom Index – from 90 to 100 - should be very telling. “Digital Dictatorship” is becoming a common phrase in our country.

In all this, what is rather surprising is that it seems that the media houses in question did not see this one on “Digital Shutdown” coming. Could it be that they probably felt “sufficiently safe”, that they had played their political cards thus far well enough? Whoever said injustice for one translates to injustice for all knew what they were saying. For the minute the media sector (just as individuals and other institutions) chooses to turn the other side when there is injustice in one quarter, it would most likely be just a matter of time, before that circle, that space, shrinks enough to catch up with them… and that is probably one logical explanation for the situation these media houses find themselves in.

One hopes that we take home the lessons. But then again, I am reminded of the paradoxical aphorism that “We learn from history, that we learn nothing from history…”Perhaps an explanation as to why the saying I started off with (“When they came for ....., When they came for you...”) though belonging to the World Wars era, still applies in so many instances today; so many years later.

One prays (no pun intended) that the church (another institution generally perceived to have been seriously compromised in present day Kenya) will not be next on line.

* Susan Onyango is a consultant with years of experience addressing Communication and Development issues from a gender perspective.



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