The Kenyan media is heralded as one of the most vibrant in the region. However, since 2007, when the media has revealed blatant partisanship from which it hasn’t fully recovered, it has come under scrutiny.
The expansion of democratic space following the introduction of multiparty- for which the media played a significant role, went hand in hand with the expansion of media, especially the FM radio stations. During the struggle for multiparty the media provided the reform movement the platform to articulate their policies as well as exposing government’s nefarious schemes, for that stand, some sections of the media paid a steep price individually and institutionally- in part the libel cases against The People Daily by the regime crippled the once energetic publication.
Like many institutions, the media was ill prepared for the 2007 elections and its aftermath. This was In part the 2002 peaceful transition lulled all and sundry, and many expected the 2007 elections to be the same. In the 2007, the media was not only lulled into complacency, it took sides, particularly the FM radio stations.
One of the emerging media trend is media ownership by politicians which has implications for peace and security particularly during election campaign- editorial compromise- blurring the line between journalism and propaganda.
If in the 2007 elections, the radio and short message services (SMS) was used to incite people, in 2013, the social media- Twitter, and Facebook and message boards played a role inciting people. The anonymity provided by the internet fostered an atmosphere where people freely spew ethnic vitriol.
In the 2007 election the media was chastised for the active role it played during and after the elections. Before the election, some media houses were accused of taking sides, during the election- particularly, the vote counting and tallying, the media was accused of releasing results before the Independent Electoral Commission (ECK) released them.
Of all the institutions that failed in 2007- the police, is undergoing some reform, although painfully slow, the judiciary is undergoing changes under the stewardship of the Mutunga, the church asked for forgiveness for misleading their flock. But media has not taken any deliberate effort in analyzing its performance in the 2007 and 2013.
If in 2007 elections the media committed the sin of commission by being overzealous, in 2013, the media’s sin was that of omission by being complacent. The passivity was also part of the larger posture of “peace at any cost” which prevented not only the media, but also most of the institutions from asking critical question lest they are seen to jeopardize peace and national security. The ubiquitous peace messages online and offline paralyzed the once vigorous media to be meek.
As a sign of serious post-election confidence crisis the media has done little to redeem its image instead they’ve reinforced them. Recently, in a media breakfast with the president, some journalists acted like children let lose in a candy shop, with some falling over themselves cozying up to the president.
This week, in a clear manifestation where its priorities lay, The Nation and The Standard engaged in circulation wars. The Nation initiated this needless war by arguing The Standard was less forthcoming with its circulation numbers. The Standard replied in kind, arguing they are not so much interested in the circulation numbers, they are interested in hits on their website, for which they claim to have an upper hand. Why this is an important issue for which the papers had to go public with full page announcement is inexplicable.
The Nation’s reason for inauguration a war with Standard is clearly because The Standard poached several of its big name newspaper and broadcast journalists. The back and forth shuttle of journalist between the two media houses is nothing new, and The Nation, like any media house should have accepted this as an occupation hazard. But Nation’s Machiavellian tactic is a distracting away from its failure to pay competitive salary, the reason many flee the media giant.
Over all, the current fights between the two largest media outlets- we haven’t seen the end of this, frankly, reveals a serious institutional malaise more than anything. At an historic moment in the countries life, when we are in the process of implementing the constitution, unparalleled youth unemployment, terrorism threats, climate change and the near disappearance of some of our wildlife, the media is quibbling over circulation numbers. A journalist colleague of mine once told me, there is a huge problem, when I don’t consume any media product- radio/tv/ newspaper, and I am not any less informed.
The Dean of Kenya’s journalism, Philip Ochieng, in his timeless book, “I accuse the Press” catalogued the shenanigan in the Kenyan media; it seems it is time for a sequel.