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By easily relinquishing a critical agenda setting role, the mainstream media in Kenya appears to have given up on its well-earned position as an accessory to the second liberation for which it paid a steep price. Today, media content is generally vacuous

Charles Obbo’s thoughtful piece that appeared in the Saturday Nation, November 7, “Is it the end, or a second life for Kenya media?” was a welcome breath of fresh air in a week where Kenya’s two mainstream newspapers - The Daily Nation and The Standard - went for each other’s jugulars in a circulation and website hits “war.”

The piece was refreshing, as it took the focus away from the gratuitous cat-fights between the two giant newspapers and pivoted it to where it was deserved; the fundamental, systemic and institutional identity crisis of Kenya’s media post the 2007 disputed elections.

Obbo’s piece probably marks the first time someone in the media openly admitted the negative role the media played in 2007. He rightly observes, ‘The role the section of the media played in fanning ethnic hatred, framing political contest in ways that made the post-election slaughter in which nearly 1500 were killed and 600,000 displayed from their homes almost inevitable was disgraceful’.

Obbo nailed it when he observed that post-President Moi, the media was keen to cash in on the fruits of their labor- the media was in the trenches with the opposition and reform movement fighting against Moi’s state, and that opposition formed the government in 2002. During that fight, the media expended a tremendous amount of its capital in defeating Moi. When Moi left the stage, the media was running on an empty tank in unchartered territory without a real plan for what to do next. Thus, the entire anti-Moi brigade entered a new phase under President Kibaki where they naively assumed the ‘end of ideology’ and uncritically embraced Kibaki.

But the honeymoon between the media and the administration didn’t last, and thereafter, the media saw the state for what it was rather than what they thought it was. From there, the relationship between the media and the Kibaki administration assumed an adversarial posture. It hit rock bottom when Kibaki’s personal life became a serious national interest story, and the low point came when the president’s wife slapped a journalist at the Nation Centre.

The raiding of The Standard premises and the closing down of the media house by then internal security minister John Michuki over the live transmission of the 2007 election results forever defined the relationship between Kibaki’s administration and the media. After that, any residual lingering faux Manichean dichotomy where Kibaki’s government was seen as good as opposed to Moi’s quickly dissipated.

While the human cost of the 2007 election violence is openly acknowledged, what is often less acknowledged is its impact on the critical institutions, the media included. The violence, more than anything else, revealed serious deficits and systemic weaknesses in many institutions. But whereas the police force is undergoing some reform, albeit painfully slowly, and the judiciary under the stewardship of Dr Willy Mutunga has slowly begun gaining public trust, and the church sought forgiveness for misleading their flock after 2007, and the electoral management body was reconstructed, although old problems persist, in the media there was no soul searching. The default setting was that of collective amnesia.

If in the 2007 elections the media’s sin was that of commission - overzealous reporting, in the 2013 elections, it was that of omission - being complacent. The passivity was part of the larger posture of ‘peace at any cost’- peace-ocracy, which prevented not only the media, but also most of the institutions from asking critical question lest they were deemed anti-peace. The ubiquitous peace messages online and offline paralyzed the once vigorous press, before, during, and after the elections. A vigorous media benefits the public and often threatens the powers that be. In Kenya in 2013, the criticisms were over the media’s willful ignorance of this reality.

Obbo reckons the media’s centrist approach, what many view as the capitulation to Uhuruto’s charm [an acronym coined from the names of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto during the campaigns">, was not only an inevitable evolutionary arc, almost a fait accompli, but in Kenya’s case, compared to the media in the region, was delayed. It was bound to happen and, in fact, happened everywhere else first.

While I have no quibble with this historical reality, I am worried about its long term consequences for public policy discourse at a critical time in the country’s history; t a time when serious, aggressive and fair reportage has never been more critical; when we are in the middle of reengineering the extractive, personalized and detached colonial state to become a professional, public service oriented respondent state. In such an environment, the mainstream media needs to redouble their efforts rather than roll back, or be part of the establishment. At a time when the consequence of unparalleled youth unemployment is all too evident, the mainstream media needs to be ahead of the curve in challenging not only the existing orthodoxy, but also be part of the process of finding cutting edge solutions to some of these problems. Otherwise, we shall have a rich and comfortable media, and a poor democracy.

Obbo argues the new media needs to emerge to take the place of mainstream media in terms of aggressive reporting. That is a fair game. There is a place for the new media, but, if there is one lesson that could be learned from the last elections, when the mainstream media was restrained, it is that the anonymity provided by the online media that transformed the internet into an overnight theatre of conflict. Fighting occurred on social media sites, as opposed to in the villages and on the streets of Rift Valley, Mombasa and in the slums of Nairobi as had happened in previous election cycles.

It is only natural that when the mainstream media began soft peddling some of the hot button issues, the new media picked up the baton. By easily relinquishing a critical agenda setting role, the mainstream media gave up on its well-earned position as an accessory to the second liberation for which it paid a steep price. The People Daily still bears the scars of its robust reporting when it was economically crippled through denial of adverts and libel cases. And without the mainstream media playing this role, the country loses an important voice.

At some point the new media may take over from the traditional media, or the old media will transform itself into new media - every time a new medium emerges, we are quick to write the old media’s obituary, yet in each case, they continue to survive by adapting to the emerging realities.

While the latent power of the new media is real, it has not matured enough for the mainstream media to hand the baton to them. Maybe this will happen in the future; when they can provide an alternative platform, but at the moment, this nascent media is not mature enough to be trusted with sensitive issues like national security.

Media managers’ eternal battle is a delicate balance of the trifecta of the audience, the advertisers and the government. It is a miracle if ever an optimum balance of the trio is achieved. At any one point, the interest of any one of these will be underrepresented. Previously, the government was an existential threat to the media, but that is no more, the advertisers, the goose that lay the golden eggs, have emerged as the insidious threat, the media’s attempt to satisfy their needs and the audience’s is hardly contemplated. This is manifested in the empty content peddled by the media. Print suffers from empty content syndrome - selling screaming headline with empty content, but the biggest culprit of the dearth of content is broadcast media.

The expansion of the democratic space saw the proliferation of radio stations, especially FM stations. This expansion witnessed a growth in the variety of outlets giving the audience choice; however, there was no natural improvement in the media content, if anything the quality of the content deteriorated. One can switch from one radio station to another, but not with a significant difference. The competition for the same ad shillings and audience instead of creating competition spurred uniformity. The emergence of top100 programming format saw each station trying to create a niche audience without necessarily improving the quality and content of programming.

Instead of radio becoming a serious news medium, we now have top hit music and comedians, as well as the use of musicians as the hosts of radio broadcasting. Radio has handed over news reporting to newspapers and TV. Thus radio managers now hire ‘talent’ not based on journalism training or inclination but based on fake British and American accents backed up by goofy comedians.

Arguably, TV’s golden age was the 2007 elections, when live broadcasting, which was already in vogue, was given a new push via live broadcasts of the elections; this was hugely helped by helicopters transporting journalist easily from one event in Turkana to Lamu, Mandera to Malaba. Suddenly, what was traditionally regarded as a preserve of international news outlets- BBC, Sky and CNN - was n now a staple of local TV stations, NTV, Citizen and KTN.

But in between live broadcasting and occasional breaking news, TV was struggling to fill the air time with anything remotely useful. Just like radio, importing cheap soap operas and Naija movies, hour long interviews where punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, where the presenters are the content, where competition for faux accents has become the currency. Sometimes, even the live reporting and long hour news shows leave a lot to be desired. Few, if any locally originating news shows can be called informative, reporters like Denis Onsarigo, Mohammed Ali and John Allan Namu being the exceptions. In the end TV outside the news hour is a ‘celebrity’ industrial complex circus where interviewers are infatuated with their guests.

Another issue that gets little attention is the death of diversity because of cross ownership. Almost all major media outlets own a newspaper, radio stations, and a TV station. The main culprit of this is the Nation, which not only owns them in Kenya, but also across the border in Uganda and Tanzania. Any effort at addressing this has always been met with righteous indignation from the media, invoking the well-rehearsed line; the government wants to regulate the media for nefarious ends - conveniently ignoring the deleterious consequences of content uniformity when owned by a single corporation.

Obbo concludes, ‘Kenya needs new newspapers that have greater freedom to go against the grain. Therefore, the crisis today is not that the main media are too comfortable and restrained. It is that Kenya has failed to produce a newspaper like The Monitor that arose in Uganda in 1992 — or even like the Weekly Review in 1975, Kenya’s first news magazine that broke the mould and challenged the post-independence settlement. That is mainly a failure of Kenyan society, not just its media’.

It was convenient for Obbo to place the burden of the current crisis in the media on Kenyans. This deflects the onus away from the mainstream media. The media needs to do a thorough introspection if it wants to preserve its legacy as well as have a role in the future.



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