The crisis of confidence, rich media, poor democracy and the need for a reboot
Post Moi, the media was keen to cash in on the fruits of their labor- the media was in the trenches with the opposition and reform movement fighting against Moi’s state, and that opposition formed the government in 2002. During that fight, the media expended a tremendous amount of its capital in defeating Moi. When Moi left the stage, the media was running on an empty tank in unchartered territory without a real plan for what to do next. Thus, the entire anti-Moi brigade entered a new phase under Kibaki where they naively assumed the “end of ideology” and uncritically embraced Kibaki.
But the honey moon between the media and the administration didn’t last, and thereafter, the media saw the state for what it was rather than what they thought it was. From there, the relationship between the media and the Kibaki administration assumed an adversarial posture. It hit rock bottom when Kibaki’s personal life became a serious national interest story, and the low point came when the president’s wife slapped a journalist at The Nation Centre.
The raiding of The Standard premises and the closing down of the media by John Michuki over the live transmission of the 2007 election results forever defined the relationship between Kibaki’s administration and the media. After that, any residual lingering faux Manichean dichotomy where Kibaki’s government was seen as good as opposed to Moi’s quickly dissipated.
While the human cost of the 2007 election violence is openly acknowledged, what is often less acknowledged is its impact on the critical institutions, the media included. The violence more than anything else, revealed serious deficits and systemic weaknesses in many institutions. But whereas the police force is undergoing some reform, albeit a painfully slowly, and the judiciary under the stewardship of Dr Willy Mutunga has slowly begun gaining public trust, and the church sought forgiveness for misleading their flock after 2007, and the electoral management body was reconstructed, although old problems persist, in the media there was no soul searching. The default setting was that of collective amnesia.
If in the 2007 elections the media’s sin was that of commission – overzealous reporting, in the 2013 elections, it was that of omission – being complacent. The passivity was part of the larger posture of “peace at any cost”- peace-ocracy, which prevented not only the media, but also most of the institutions from asking critical question lest they were deemed anti-peace. The ubiquitous peace messages online and offline paralyzed the once vigorous press, before, during, and after the elections. A vigorous media benefits the public and often threatens the powers that be. In Kenya in 2013, the criticisms were over the media’s willful ignorance of this reality.
At a time when the consequence of unparalleled youth unemployment is all too evident, the cost of climate change and the rise of extremist trans-border radical group is on the rise, the mainstream media needs to be ahead of the curve in challenging not only the existing orthodoxy, but also be part of the process of finding cutting edge solutions to some of these problems. Otherwise, we shall have a rich and comfortable media, and a poor democracy.
Media managers’ eternal battle is a delicate balance of the trifecta of the audience, the advertisers and the government. It is a miracle if ever an optimum balance of the trio is achieved. At any one point, the interest of any one of these will be underrepresented. Previously, the government was an existential threat to the media, but that is no more, the advertisers- the goose that lay the golden eggs, have emerged as the insidious threat, the media’s attempt to satisfy their needs is the audience’s is hardly contemplated. This is manifested in the empty content peddled by the media. Print suffers from empty content syndrome – selling screaming headline with empty contents, but the biggest culprit of the dearth of content is broadcast media.
The expansion of the democratic space saw the proliferation of radio stations, especially FM stations. This expansion witnessed a growth in the variety of outlets giving the audience choice; however, there was no natural improvement in the media content, if anything the quality of the content deteriorated. One can switch from one radio station to another, but not with a significant difference. The competition for the same ad shillings and audience instead of creating competition spurred uniformity. The emergence of top100 programming format saw each station trying to create a niche audience without necessarily improving the quality and content of programming.
Instead of radio becoming a serious news medium, we now have top hit music and comedians, as well as the use of musicians as the hosts of radio broadcasting. Radio has handed off news reporting to newspapers and TV. Thus radio managers now hire “talent” not based on journalism training or inclination but based on fake British and American accents backed up by goofy comedians.
Arguably, TV’s golden age was the 2007 elections, when live broadcasting, which was already vogue, was given a new push via live broadcasts of the elections; this was hugely helped by helicopters transporting journalist easily from one event in Turkana to Lamu, Mandera to Malaba. Suddenly, what was traditionally regarded as a preserve of international news outlets- BBC, Sky and CNN was n now a staple of local TV stations, NTV, Citizen and KTN.
But in between live broadcasting and occasional breaking news, TV was struggling to fill the air time with anything remotely useful. Just like radio, importing cheap soap operas and Naija movies, hour long interviews where punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, where the presenters are the content, where competition for faux accents has become the currency. Sometimes, even the live reporting and long hour news shows leave a lot to be desired. Few, if any locally originating news shows can be called informative, Onsarigo, Moha and Namu being the exceptions. In the end TV outside the news hour is a “celebrity” industrial complex circus where interviewers are infatuated with their guests.
Another issue that gets little attention is the death of diversity because of cross ownership. Almost all major media outlets own a newspaper, radio stations, and a TV station. The main culprit of this is the Nation, which not only owns them in Kenya, but also across the border in Uganda and Tanzania. Any effort at addressing this has always been met with righteous indignation from the media, invoking the well-rehearsed line; the government wants to regulate the media for nefarious ends, conveniently ignoring the deleterious consequences of content uniformity when owned by a single corporation.