The Kenyan media business should panic. Kenyan journalism, not so much. It just needs to collect itself from the gutter.

Nairobi Skyline. (Photo credit Babak Fakhamzadeh CC BY-NC 2.0)

By James Smart

When President Barack Obama famously visited the country of his father’s birth just months before leaving office, he congratulated the Kenyan press for its well-known “feisty journalism.” If his speechwriters had been more attuned to current events, they might have been more circumspect in this characterization. The Kenyan media business had long ago dropped its role as public watchdog to become the government’s lapdog.

Perhaps this is not surprising given that the Kenyan media’s current business model is something like a cup placed under a tap that occasionally opens and closes. That tap is due to turn on this March and April as it has done for the past twenty years. Kenya’s Standard Media Group and Nation Media Group will respectively net the equivalent of 4 and 5 million US dollars this March in ad revenue alone. Partly this is because the government requires banks to publish financial reports this month in at least two dailies for a combined circulation of 150,000 newspapers. The government will also continue to place upwards of 60 ads in each of these newspapers each month at a rate of about US$2000 per advertisement. Thus, in terms of ad revenue, business will be booming in March.

As such, Kenyan media companies were alarmed when the government recently threatened to turn the tap off when it declared its intention to launch its own paper, MyGov. This move did not so much target the media business but rather the staggering, half-awake state of Kenyan journalism. With elections just five months away, the government needed to announce who the boss was and re-establish the balance of power just in case someone got the crazy idea to “commit journalism.”

The push back from the Kenyan press was predictable. The extent of their response consisted of a few negative yet half-hearted editorials on the potential damage of the new measure. Indeed, the mandarins and hatchers of this evil plan that will undoubtedly tame the media must have watched with amazement and slight disappointment by the lack of imagination, guts, and foresight in media industry circles to conjure an eloquent pushback.

The “feisty” media that Obama referenced did once exist. It took to the streets in the 1990s, took on blows from police and tear gas for days, weeks, and months and eventually ushered in a multi-party democracy alongside Kenyan citizens. Now, however, the news media watches from the sidelines as public resources are plundered and government officials abuse their offices.

There is perhaps no better example of this than a scandal involving the National Youth Service (NYS) around the time of Obama’s visit. That summer, the state launched a program to hire unemployed youth, train them in certain skills, and employ them in their communities. The hiring and training happened, but billions of Kenyan shillings also grew legs and walked away, all in the name of the National Youth Service.

Former prime minister and current opposition leader Raila Odinga raised the country’s attention to the burning bush of corruption in NYS, but the “feisty” media gave him a cold hearing and eventually ignored his cries altogether. Long after Odinga was silenced for making “much ado about nothing,” in the words of one leading newspaper, the theft at NYS, eventually unraveled in the full glare of the public.

A hairdresser, Josephine Kabura, who was at the center of the theft of millions of dollars of taxpayer’s monies, lifted the lid on the repugnant theft. Frustrated that the noose was tightening on her while dozens of her accomplices were getting off scot free, she declared in an affidavit filed at the High Court in Nairobi that the powerful devolution cabinet secretary Anne Waiguru had participated in the schemes that saw Kenyan taxpayers around 20 million US dollars. She further admitted in public inquiry to using over twenty shell companies to win US$10 million in NYS contracts.

Despite later carting away her stolen money in bags and riding off into the sunset to enjoy her hard-earned wealth, this billionaire hairdresser provided the public with the only shot they had at understanding how senior government officials had looted, with impunity, a highly expensive government project aimed at empowering young, unemployed Kenyans. Following weeks of government denial, Anne Waiguru, was eventually forced out of office. The scandal was confirmed and a political fall-out followed.

The scandal exposed the soft underbelly of Kenyan journalism. The watchdog had utterly failed in its cardinal role of exposing graft that stunk to high heavens. Truth is, however, the media business would not have allowed an exposé. It would have prompted an awkward closing of the tap when it was the season for the tap to be running.

If it is the role of the news media to show their audiences how to be active citizens, then the NYS scandal should have triggered the press to rise to the challenge and rediscover its mojo. But, it failed and it will fail again when presented with same set of circumstances.

With government providing sixty percent of the revenue stream for typical media giants, soft censorship is the name of the game. Media would alternatively have to look to the private sector that currently only contributes around thirty percent of media revenues. And, with private sector booming or busting depending on government contracts, private companies will most likely shy away from supporting critical journalism.

The challenge for progressives in Kenya is how to disentangle the co-opted media business and separate it from journalism. They must reintroduce critical thinking into newsrooms by providing avenues where citizens are at the center of storytelling instead of powerful interests. The political elites will never allow this to happen and shouting at them about their latest arm-twisting of the media will not help much. It is more like throwing a steak to a tiger and hoping that it will, somehow, turn vegetarian.

James Smart is an experienced journalist, prime-time television anchor, and talk-show host based in Nairobi. He successfully launched two of the country’s top television shows, #TheTrend and #KTNLivewire, which integrate social media platforms such as Twitter to enable viewers to engage directly with the hosts of each program. Currently he is a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy where he is working on a project to analyze the content of Kenyan news media to uncover existing biases and put forward recommendations for a more impartial, balanced media environment. Follow Mr. Smart on Twitter @jamessmat.

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