Rebuild civil society and media

Press Freedom

Journalists march during a peaceful procession to mark World Press Freedom Day in Kisii Town on May 03, 2022. They called for safeguarding of media freedoms and upholding safety of journalist as the country heads to the election.

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • A weak media is unable to expose political deceit, including attempts at overthrowing the incumbent.
  • A free press fosters transparency and accountability through its watchdog operations.

If information is food for the mind, then public information policy is the agriculture. Government hostility towards media is the same as a farmer who attacks the plants that bear the food.

For those of us who are bureaucrats, we know that it makes no sense to mark our work by measuring effort. Because, you see, work can be, and often is, pointless, useless, mindless box-ticking. You measure the effect of your work. If you look at media today — both public service media such as KBC, KNA and the network of government PROs — and commercial media, what effect do you think Jubilee’s efforts over the past 10 years have had?

Kenya’s once-mighty media are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The media today are less free than they were in 1997. I should know; I was there. And it is all down to the Jubilee government’s sensitivity to criticism, its aggressive and damaging intervention in the advertising market and the success of its efforts to undermine civil society.

Somebody should do an audit of the cost — in destroyed livelihoods, shareholder value shot down the drain and damage to democracy — of the anti-media policies pursued by Jubilee measured against whatever savings, if any, of public money.

Hostility to media and civil society

The impact on democracy is bad, because democracy is not sustained by goodwill, good intentions, kindness or even honesty — attributes that can be ascribed to only a few people in government, quite possibly including President Uhuru Kenyatta — but by independent, pervasive capacity of media and citizen busybodies to find out and report what the government is up to. It is the fear of their career, reputation, family, financial and other interests becoming endangered that keeps politicians honest, not a fidelity to values.

I think that some people in Jubilee created this mentality of hostility to the media and civil society not because these institutions had seditious intent — they were not supporting rebel movements or subversive activities, they were not were working with Al-Shabaab against national security (quite the opposite), they were not undermining the economy. So, why?

It was to ensure that corrupt activities of fantastical proportions — as exposed by the Kinoti-Haji duo when it was working harmoniously — as well as gross incompetence in the management of public affairs were never found out. It takes a lot more than compromised ability to take the decision that the most efficient and effective application of public resources is to use billboards to explain presidential legacy, for example. Not forgetting that a weak media is unable to expose political deceit, including attempts at overthrowing the incumbent through political subterfuge. 

But I digress a little.

Remember, news is anything they don’t want you to find out. The rest is PR. Going by that, the news content of social media is little. Therefore, media, when they operate optimally, cannot be disrupted by social media. I think the biggest disruptor of media is not digital; it is government.

Broken our democracy

A free press is a miracle of human endeavour: It knits together a nation by creating cultural familiarity and acceptance among diverse proto-nations; it kneads and shapes the dough of national character by confirming what is acceptable and sanctioning what isn’t; it is effective soft power because it transmits a nation’s culture and enables it to be understood; it fosters transparency and accountability through its watchdog operations; it nourishes and improves the minds of the population by providing wholesome information; and it legitimises a government by confirming the constitutionality of its formation and operation and singing praise to its achievement. It is a gift that keeps giving, as the ad says.

By breaking media and civil society, the past 10 years have broken our democracy. The darkness created is like an unexercised body without oxygen; a place for malignant growths. The country’s capacity to efficiently execute stuff and procure is stunted. Yes, some things have got done, but at massive cost and the President standing over people to do their work.

The red meat of government — its ability to inform the people what it is doing on their behalf — has had its testis removed; it now resembles those in-grown little chicken things that Mama Baby in Kaloleni used to serve as surua to accompany her delicious fry. So much so that there is a whole province whose people have been utored that their leader got into power just to add weight — never mind that they can barely sleep from the sound of machinery doing roads.

Kenya must rebuild civil society and the media. It must become a social democracy, a place where the quality of life and the rights of the people are more important than building monuments to debt, where the government serves and trusts the people and where the baking of the cake is as important as the sharing of it.

Dear Lord, come through for my people.

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Donald Trump went for the throat of the Secret Service guard when they refused to let him lead the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2020? Has he been the beneficiary of George Wajackoya’s agriculture?

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