By James Smart
Dictatorship, authoritarianism, and despotism are the very big words that have been used to describe the state of affairs in Kenya these days after three private television stations were forced off the air by the government.
They are the labels being used to expound upon long-standing questions about the East African nation’s promise for democracy and good governance. These questions are difficult. I find it difficult to describe the goings-on with finality.
Democracy is a seesaw—a never-ending battle between forces who admittedly see problems in very different ways.
In Kenya, this problem is particularly accentuated due to a political grammar, maintained for 50 plus years by different political generations, that takes advantage of mobilization through gesture politics, labelling, and ethnic mobilization.
Therefore, the problem with labels in Kenya is that, more often than not, they tend to mask the truth while misdirecting the public. Of course, all the while, serving a political purpose.
The Kenyan media has a long impressive history of professionalism, creativity, and dynamism that has continued to contribute in the steady progress of the Kenyan state. However, it is my firm belief that most journalists in Kenya are operating with an outdated toolbox. Hence, a smarter and sophisticated political class has found ways of running around the newsrooms.
The Kenyan media looks toward the western press for inspiration. It is therefore built to deal with what Aldous Huxley called “rational propaganda,” which is based on the idea that arguments are premised upon fact, reason, and enlightened self-interest. In this set-up, the media’s role is clear—report actions of those in power, fact-check their statements, and point out their failures and inconsistencies. Journalism became quite good in dealing with spinning politicians, evasive characters, and subterfuge, but the Kenyan newsrooms today have no response for shameless, lying politicians, and open contradictions.
But, this is not the only problem with the media today.
It must be mentioned that the private and commercial media funds its operations primarily from state coffers, in the form of advertisements. This constitutes 60 to 70 percent of its revenue streams, while with the remainder is covered by multinationals and other private companies.
Put another way, the Kenyan media is first a business, before it serves the public interest. The most important editor for the Kenyan journalist is the media owner who has invested billions of shillings in the media business infrastructure.
We must mention at this point that each and every one of Kenya’s major media conglomerates has deep and active political interests. In the event that private interests collide with public interest, the private interest wins the day. When that happens, it should not be said to be dictatorship. It is business.
Freedom House has ranked Kenya’s media as “partly free” for more than a decade now. However, the Kenyan journalism buzz has been showing signs of strain over the years. The media business flourished after the fall of Daniel arap Moi’s twenty-four year regime in 2002, which resulted in the installation of Mwai Kibaki as the new president. However, the growth in media in that period has been misinterpreted as a genuine opening when it merely represented a shift in the segment of the political class controlling the media.
An editor at Nation Media Group, East Africa’s largest media house, was fired after authoring an editorial last year that questioned government competence. After he was let go, the paper of record apologized to the ruling class in what was a stomach-turning moment for many journalists. That wasn’t dictatorship.
During the height of austerity talk, when President Kenyatta and his cabinet promised to take pay cuts, the Standard media group managed to do some investigative journalism that revealed the cabinet spent Ksh. 100 million for a cabinet retreat. Again, the paper fired its editorial director, and quickly ran an apology to statehouse. That wasn’t dictatorship.
Journalism in Kenya has been at its worst in recent years. Hundreds of reporters and editors have lost their jobs after being accused by the media business of committing acts of journalism.
It therefore is something of a surprise when a political fallout borne out of usual backroom deals between the media business owners, their minders, and government type backfires. It is branded as the single most important indicators of authoritarianism. In fact, it was not.
If Kenya is sliding into a dictatorship, it is not a sudden or singular event. It most certainly did not happen spontaneously in the seven to ten days that four television channels were off air. Rather, the real media shutdown has been building over a number of years as Kenya media businesses have taken many steps to please the political class.
So, has journalism failed? Yes. Has it contributed to the political state of affairs? Yes. Do we still need it? A resounding yes.
The moving target of “truth” in Kenyan journalism has contributed to the erosion of democratic space while alienating citizens contributing to a disillusioned public. Truth is a product of a conversation society has with itself about and via the communication channels it has invented.
The Kenyan public is in need of audacious, bold, and honest truth-tellers today more than ever to replace the spineless, political wheeler-dealers who took over newsrooms. What will be useful in Kenya’s journalism will be first an admission among the rank and file on how far we have strayed from being defenders of the people to where we are currently as defenders of those in power.
However, this is clearly not enough in the age of smart, populist politics with a personality-cult logic. The media business model has run its course. It is highly unlikely any individual who has invested so much into the media business in Kenya did so in the public interest.
Kenyan journalism lost its soul a longtime ago. It is time to rediscover the journey of seeking the “truth.” This means we must find ways to lose the advertising tail that is wagging the news dog at a quickening pace.
Journalism has always required a soul but today more than ever, Kenyan journalism needs to grow a spine, and fast.
While having a soul—empathy and reporting for the people—is an essential condition, having a spine—standing up to those in power—is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for journalism that is worth talking about.
The solutions for a resurgent Kenyan journalism lie within and not without.
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. He is also the founder of K-Youth Media, a nonprofit organization based in Nairobi that provides media skills and journalism training for youth living in urban slums. Follow Mr. Smart on Twitter @jamessmat.