Kenya’s media might win the fight for freedom by losing

Video journalists cover the presentation of a petition by an aspirant at the Jubilee Party headquarters in Pangani, Nairobi, on May 3, 2017. In the battle for media freedom, sometimes you win by losing. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • What in the pre-social media era was considered brave and courageous journalism today comes across as cowardly.
  • The thing is, even the most supine media is never useless. It still tells important stories, though it might require a new reading code.

These are dog days for Kenyan media. Its journalists, editors and owners have been accused of pro-government partisanship, tribalism, corruption, cowardice, selling out ... name it.

The election of December 2007 was, probably, the turning point and, since then, every election has brought a new crisis, newsroom turmoil and disillusioned readers and viewers.

The crisis the Kenyan media faces today, though part of it is self-inflicted, has also been driven by factors beyond its control — mainly the internet and social media.

PRESS FREEDOM
Because people — some often writing anonymously on blogs or posting on social media — can call politicians all sorts of names and get away with it, they have shifted media consumers’ tastes.

What in the pre-social media era was considered brave and courageous journalism today comes across as cowardly.

But even as someone who braved many years in the trenches fighting for press freedom, made over 150 trips to the court to face the powers that be and spent a record number of hours in the police interrogation room over publishing stories that “endangered national security”, I am aware that, in the end, for editors and publishers, the biggest victory is to survive.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
Take on the corrupt government and expose election theft, but a newspaper or television station that is shutdown or banned does not get to even publish football scores.

It is a source of tension with the public who, in Kenya at least, will no longer accept the compromise. The humiliations can sometimes be big — but still worth it.

Though in Uganda I always worked with either the most radical or independent newspapers, there was a time when we had to settle for stories that read:

“A certain minister, allegedly pocketed a certain amount of money, to award a contract for a big project to a business friend, who runs company X.”

RADIO KATWE
That is because the publishers couldn’t let us get away with naming names.

But in the towns around the country, people in pubs would spend the weekend arguing and debating who the “certain minister” or “company X” was.

Because Uganda has a longer history of media repression, it developed a well-established underground news channel called “Radio Katwe”.

Previous dictators, including military ruler Idi Amin, would rail against “Radio Katwe” and threaten to arrest its perpetrators.

Radio Katwe, among other things, filled in the gaps where journalists couldn’t provide the news.

Its decline started with the more open media environment that came after 1986 and it eventually migrated to the internet.

WHISPERS
Today, it’s perhaps embodied in a Facebook page by someone calling himself (or herself) TVO.

The Uganda government has spent a fortune trying to smoke him/her out, and even gone to court to compel Facebook to reveal the face behind it.

The thing is, even the most supine media is never useless.

It still tells important stories, though it might require a new reading code, which was alive in Kenya during the rule of Daniel arap Moi, and which ’80s Washington Post correspondent in Nairobi, Blaine Harden, writes about in his book, Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.

Wahome Mutahi’s Sunday Nation 1990s column, Whispers, was a big hit and comic relief to a besieged country.

IDI AMIN

He took to writing it after he was jailed for his political column, which he was forced to give up as one of the conditions of his release.

But there were many readers who saw it for what it was — ruthless Orwellian satire that was a criticism of the government of the day.

In Amin’s Uganda, with all independent journalist killed or exiled there was no free media. The biggest hit was a cartoon, “Ekanya”, in the government paper.

Ekanya was a loud-mouthed, cynical urbanite.

Everyone, including the regime hatchet men, loved his jokes about things like how to tell who were the drunk drivers on the roads — it was the fellows who drove straight.

VICTORY
The ones who were sober zig-zagged because they had the sense to avoid the potholes that had turned Uganda’s roads that time in moon surfaces.

None of them realised that the cartoon was a critique of regime failure with potholes being the symbol of it.

It’s important to keep up this sublime level of political conversation.

In the battle for media freedom, sometimes you win by losing. It’s a very lonely place to be, though.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]

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