Gagging The Kenyan Press: A tale of strange bedfellows indeed

4 Nov

I have been listening to the discourse about the Kenya government’s attempt to gag the media with their ‘draconian media bill’ with interest. As a long serving journalist working in and outside the mainstream media, I could see this coming but perhaps  not so soon.

What has the media done to warrant a government backlash? If you ask me, the profession has laid itself bear allowing all and sundry to take potshots at it without any fear of being challenged. 

The Media has lost the respect of the government and the public, whose interest it claims to protect. They have allowed the profession to become a free for all, where there are no regulations and no minimum entry requirements to operate.  It is only in Kenya where anyone with a mouth, a pen or keyboard for that matter, and an opinion, can be a journalist. If you are pretty and know the right people,  you can become a broadcasting sensation over night.

This has meant that people without the skill or even the zeal to learn on the job run the media houses. These non professionals  do not understand even the simplest thing about media ethics, libel, slander etc, let alone fact checking or the need to remain impartial on the job.

As a result, we see blatant violations of these principles daily. The profession has become so grotesquely unprofessional the public no longer respects the media or see them as the bearers of unbiased truth. The media can no longer claim to be the opinion shapers of  those  whose right to know we claim to protect. We cant blame the politician, a person who makes a living by exploiting situations to his/ her advantage for seizing an opportunity such as this to settle score.

Granted, the media has  rubbed the lawmakers the wrong way by blowing the whistle on their excesses and that was a good think because the public interest was squarely served. The public got to know what their representatives were up to and act to curtail them.

There has been talk of the media being unpatriotic when it comes to their coverage of the Westgate terror attack. From where I stand, the conduct of the media was on the whole, questionable. Some of the reports we saw failed to be sensitive to the conflict and the safety of those caught in siege. We saw footage that traumatized viewers and hurt the families of the victims. The daily Nation, the largest newspaper in Kenya was forced to apologize after splashing a horrendous portrait of a bloodied victim on its cover perhaps with the intention of driving the sales. Let me wondering what kind of editor was at the desk that night. Most probably an inexperienced one who failed to see the sensationalist nature of that headline, choosing to see only the sales figures.

Was the desire to drive ratings the motivation for the media to behave the way they did when they got hold of the footage obtained from the cctv camera’s at westgate. Did they put their interest against that of the nation? I believe they did. Showing footage that trashed the image of the KDF, the people’s heroes, at the time they did was irresponsible and thoughtless from where I stand. The media was caught in a frenzy of calling our soldiers thieves, even without any effort to check the facts. No mention was made about the selfless work the KDF did rescuing kenyans under siege.  

If you ask me, did the public need to know this? No they didn’t. Were the journalists unpatriotic in doing what they did? Yes they were. 

Who determines the public right to know and how?. Every Journalist knows that the right to know must be measured against the good that knowing something will do to the one who knows or maybe the  harm that not knowing would do to the public.

In this case, exposing the KDF to public ridicule did nothing to help the public sense of hope after such a vicious attack. It only served to demonize and demoralize our soldiers who are the last line of defense when the country is under attack. That footage gave ammunition to enemies to gloat. The more it was aired, the more people began to feel that what the KDF deed. ‘alleged stealing’ was worse than the act of terrorism-invading the country and killing innocent people.

Was that a betrayal of our nationhood and was it damaging to our collective sense of patriotism? Yes it was. But is reigning in the media this way the right way to address this? the answer is no. 

When all the dust has settled, the media will till needs a free environment to inform, educate and entertain the public but they must do so responsibly. The media must swallow whole meal this time, the bitter bill of self regulation

The media needs to put its own house in order first. They must restore their image as a noble profession where only the best join the profession and are proud to belong and to serve with honor and dignity. 

We are all to blame for the loss of face of journalism and we all must work together to regain the enviable position we once held as the watchdog of society whose moral authority to interrogate and question social ills was unquestionable. As things stand, the media is far from home on this one. 

When given a chance to self regulate, the media failed miserably, creating ineffective bodies like the media council and even the media owners association who appear to be self serving. 


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