State’s bid to starve media of adverts is a very good thing

Newspapers on sale in Nairobi. PHOTO | FREDRICK ONYANGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Like elsewhere in the world, Kenyan media have recently been laying off workers in a bid to cut costs as circulation and advertising revenues dwindle.

  • Digital media has been partly to blame for this.

I am going to be the first, and possibly last, independent journalist to write in praise of Kenya’s Government Advertising Agency (GAA).

The GAA was created to handle all government advertising and decide where it goes. The latest step is that the Jubilee government has created a state publication called MyGov, and all government advertising is supposed to go only to it.

My naughty friend, the Daily Nation’s managing editor Mutuma Mathiu, has called MyGov "Pravda", the propaganda newspaper of the Soviet Union’s ruling Communist Party of yesteryears.

Why is the “ban” good?

Like elsewhere in the world, Kenyan media have recently been laying off workers in a bid to cut costs as circulation and advertising revenues dwindle. Digital media has been partly to blame for this.

However, the decline of mainstream media has been a drip-drip affair that has meant that they have not had to do something drastic to survive. If you send 20 journalists home, you cut your costs, yes, but you don’t build a new type of media for the times.

To do that, the media have to be faced by the real prospect of death. In other words, you need to cut off its legs at the knees, and that is the only way they will be terrified enough to make the radical changes. For example, there is no major Kenyan media company that has an eminent blogger on its board, nor someone smart who works with a technology company.


For them to come on, the media will need to realise that they have digital assets they are not flogging and these people can help them do it, and it doesn’t require government advertising largesse.

The Nation, The Standard, and The Star, to focus on those three, have traffic that people would kill for in other parts of the world. Some years back, the traffic to the Nation website was higher than the one for the BBC!

The NTV YouTube channel was at one point the most visited in Africa.

But because making money from digital is extremely hard, media companies have focused on the easier money – print. When money from print goes up in smoke, then full attention will be given to the digital gold mine that Kenya’s main media houses are nesting on.

In the village neighbouring ours back in Uganda, they say “he who chases you [with the aim to harm] is the one who shows you the way.”

The GAA and the Pravda brew might just be it for Kenya’s media.

This is not air. I lived it in post-war Uganda. The now-Nation Media Group-owned Daily Monitor is the most successful private and independent newspaper in Uganda.

I was one of its owners and its editor. As 1993 came to an end, after just over a year, the paper had done so well, and some of us were kind of beginning to settle.


Week after week we ran scoops, many based on leaks from inside President Yoweri Museveni’s government. And every other week the numbers went up. It was a fairy tale.

Then, boom. The government banned all advertising from government and affiliated agencies in The Monitor because we were “leaking cabinet secrets.”

One morning we were staring at the paper and there was just a lonely classified advert in it. We woke up. We ceased being boys and became men.

We learnt to manage the shrunken revenue, and decided to pile up assets that would allow us to buy our press, build our own office complex, invest in efficient technology, and foolproof ourselves against state revenge.

We went on a land-buying spree, a small plot every other week, but after some months it added up. Soon we had enough land assets to take a loan for what would be Uganda’s first colour offset web press; we became the first media to fully computerise our newsroom; and raised collateral for a loan to build an office complex.

By the end of 1997, the ban had become useless. We were told to write formally and appeal it. We refused. It was dropped quietly.

That advertising thing was the best thing to happen to us. Without it we would never have travelled far. And, for the record, in the 1990s when the Nation became far out the dominant media in Kenya, it had a similar advertising ban from the Kanu government.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher, Africa data visualiser and explainer site

Twitter: @cobbo3