Why media remains key to human progress in Kenya

Media Freedom

Journalists march during a peaceful procession to mark the World Press Freedom Day in Kisii on May 3, 2022. They called for safeguarding of media freedoms and upholding safety of journalist as. 

Photo credit: Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

The World Press Freedom Day 2023 was celebrated on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Not many people know of this day or knew about the celebrations. Probably hundreds of journalists don’t even know why the day is celebrated.

After all, economic vagaries mean that thousands of journalists are struggling to pay bills, are living from day to day or losing jobs. Yet, the media remains probably the most important sector of today’s society, just behind economics and politics.

The media, whatever name one gives it – print, news, social etc – is the go-to source of information, news and even knowledge these days.

It is impossible to imagine a world without media these days. Journalists may not have the same power as politicians, businessmen and even bankers. But they are the link between the men and women who rule the world and the ruled.

However, the media also plays a very important role as an agent for social and cultural education.

Today, the media is not just a source of news. It is also a school, a hospital, a market, a parliament, a court etc. The media is many things because it accesses and retails information, news and knowledge that millions of people would not be able to access on their own.

Just by touching a button on a phone keypad, one can read news from all over the world for free. Even when a particular media has a firewall, the restricted stories are likely to be downloaded by a subscriber and shared widely. This is how the media is spreading news and knowledge globally.

The media offers its consumers a range of options on products and services available in the market. Comparison of prices, for instance, is possible these days by just clicking on a market site.

Even the media itself retails content differently, with prime content charged a higher rate than general content. The media is teaching the old and the young what to eat or wear; where to go to school or shop; who to consult for medical or spiritual advice; how to live well, where to retire in old age and even how to plan for dependents after one passes on.

There are kindergartens, elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities. Then there is the media. One of the biggest free schools available to humanity is available through the media.

There is so much knowledge that the media retails for free today that one can take endless lessons in any subject, anywhere, any time. For decades the radio has provided lessons to millions of children who cannot immediately access certain subjects all over the world. The TV has taken over this role, albeit to a limited extent.

Today the mobile phone enables a child who cannot go to a formal and designated school to access lesson content at home or wherever they are for as long as they have mobile data.

Millions of children today learn school content, some of it for free, from TVs in their homes or at school, where the TV stands in for the teacher. But the TV is also an unacknowledged teacher of skills and knowledge that parents who are too busy or uninformed can rely on to educate their children.

Millions of children learn their speech, mannerisms, social and cultural skills from the TV or online media. Of course there are arguments that TV has a bad influence on young people. But there are millions of kids who are fully socialised and taught their culture or cultured by the media, especially TV.

Thus, the media is a key component in human progress. Indeed, the media is often among the first users of new technology. For instance, new innovations in mobile telephony like more and bigger cameras, interconnectivity, improved bandwidth etc provides media with better and broader platforms to reach larger audiences, therefore disseminate more news and information.

Human progress relies on discoveries of new and better ways of living and improvement of the human condition. Politics, business, economics, culture, law, education, religion etc, should all serve to make living conditions better for humanity.

The media’s role in advancing the interest of humanity obliges it to remain alert to the wishes and actions of those who have power and authority over others, and to inform the rest about the likely consequences of such wishes and actions.

It is in this sense that this year’s World Press Freedom is themed: “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all Other Human Rights.” If the media is free to report and disseminate news and information that would improve the human condition in society, that society will definitely develop faster and better.

When the media is free to provoke public conversations about any aspect of our society, without sensationalizing it, it is possible to realize the other freedoms that humanity seeks – economic, political, pedagogic, social, cultural, environmental, gender and sex etc. How so? Because the media can invite as many, if not all, voices to the debate on any of these issues/rights; it can make available information that is not necessarily available to the public; it can allay fears by the minority or the previously alienated; it can set acceptable rules of engagement; it can format the language and medium of engagement – in other words, it can set an agenda that is acceptable to all.

So, we should ask ourselves if we are truly pursuing freedom, justice and human progress in Kenya when our media freedom index is outside the top 10 in Africa. We should aim to enlarge our media space, train our journalists better, compensate them well, treat them fairly and engage them all the time. Listening to local journalists and guests during the World Press Freedom Day on the theme of “Media Freedom and the Democratization Process: Opportunities and Challenges”, one was left feeling that the ‘opportunities’ are in short supply but the ‘challenges’ are expanding exponentially.

The writer teaches literature, performing arts and media at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]