“I definitely know what you are saying. I think I have heard that statement once or twice,” begins Dr Charles Muiru Ngugi, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism and the current chairman of Media Council Training and Accreditation Committee. It is a cool Thursday morning; he is off campus, on leave and does not mind a discussion.
The statement in reference is one that you have probably heard too; “I do not watch Kenyan news.” A related one will be, “I do not read Kenyan newspapers.”
If you have heard those remarks, chances are that you didn’t hear them from a street vendor or some rural folk. These often come from relatively well informed individuals, mostly with college degrees and living (or on the path towards) a middle class or upper class life.
From various age groups, they can be individuals who are 52 years old and those who are 25 years old; individuals who are well aware of why they should be informed, they probably need to stay on-top of news for the sake of their jobs and yet they are the same people who have grown so skeptical of Kenyan media industry to the point of dismissing it. Why would this happen? Why would people, and a large number of people from the look of it, who should know better, act as though they know otherwise?
In a long yet articulate conversation, Dr Ngugi explained how this came to be.
“In my view, the first thing would be what I can refer to as legacy reasons. You see, when Kenya was a single party state, there was extremely limited media space. Voice of Kenya – VOK – and Kenya Broadcasting Corporation – KBC – were the only sources of local news; and you know the kind of news they provided.”
A joke goes that the only true announcements back then were death and time announcements. The alternatives at this point, for Kenyans who could afford it, were British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), or Deutsche Welle. The older generation who are averse to Kenyan news got used to the type and form of news delivered by these international media outlets. They have not changed their minds since.
Anyone who lived in Kenya during the single-party state knows that the media then was an extension of government. They know that news bulletins begun with “Mtukufu Rais…” seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years.
Who can blame them for escaping that refrain?
Then came the period of liberalisation of media space in Kenya – the period that ushered in FM radio stations and multiple TV stations as well as a horde of political and lifestyle magazines.
More space, more voices and an audience spoilt for choice. For obvious reasons, Dr Ngugi believes that the liberalisation of media space in Kenya was a positive development. However, at the same time, he thinks that this new development came with a particular new challenge that has contributed to the current scepticism; commercialisation and sexualisation of media products to attract readers, viewers and listeners.
“Increased number of media outlets in the country meant that more outfits had to fight for the same resources. Competition hinged on profit rather than on competence of the journalists and the quality of journalism took center stage. This sexualisation of content and commercialisation of media products is repulsive to Kenyans who are conscious enough to see what is going on.”
He explains further that this commercialisation and sexualisation of media products has created the biggest problem the profession has so far; entry of individuals with no training – and hence no grounding into media; personalities who have no idea of the public interest aspect of journalism. They are not ethical, do not know the fundamentals of journalism and are at best individuals of odd talents brought in to draw audiences. In this group are comedians, socialites, controversial psychologists, singers, MC’s and the like. Their work is to keep the advertisers – the money – in. It is hard to convince some Kenyans that watching a socialite or listening to MC is an understandable use of their time.
In a way, it is not these individuals to blame. They are Kenyan citizens with the freedom to express themselves, and gifts that make them irresistible to media owners who are in the race to stay ahead of competition. According to Dr Ngugi, it is the media employers who, in their struggle to beat each other to the bank, have watered down the quality of the profession by employing individuals because they are funny, or controversial, or beautiful or in some cases, because they can “bring in business”.
But what of the journalist who are trained for the job? Are they in any way contributing to this state of affairs?
The don thinks they have. It is is why The Media Act of 2013 states that for one to practise as a journalist, one should hold at least a diploma in Journalism. And therein lies the problem; there are institutions that offer journalism diploma courses that last six months from start to finish and then there are those that offer the same diploma at two years from start to finish. There is no way that the two diplomas can be the same and yet somehow, they have ended up in the field. This has greatly affected the quality of media products. To remedy this, Media Council Training and Accreditation Committee has developed a new curriculum that was approved in June, with the aim of harmonising the overall media training sessions in the country.
The individuals who insist that they will never watch Kenyan news or read Kenyan newspapers put forth as their main complaint the terrible notion that most of time Kenyan news is shallow and gossipy… the kind of content that the bold ones are not shy of calling bogus; something not worth their time or money. And they might be right.
News sessions in any of the leading channels are enough to confirm this complaint. There is the usual politics, light pieces of some odd thing or two happening in Ukambani, there is a poorly done investigative story on corruption with more questions asked than answer given, and the studio guests (fast talkers brought it to excite audiences with their off-key/controversial ideas).
The whole session is delivered by a lady presenter sashaying back and forth across the studio, presenting the news no doubt, but more importantly, letting the viewers see just how great her legs or cleavage or hips are. A cartoon drawn in 2013 by Gado aptly captures the Kenyan news hour sessions: Beautiful lady, Ipad, and back and forth trips across the screen and happy men in living rooms. The news hour sessions have become more of amusement hours than news hours – ridiculous at best.
And talking about ridiculousness, Dr Ngugi says that the fascination of Kenyan media practitioners with foreign media does not make the situation any better.
“Media practitioners and media institutions are themselves falling over each other in a race to keep up with the trends of foreign media. It is ridiculous since they will always be playing catch up to BBC or Aljazeera or CNN,” he says.
The same way the media practitioners are leaning towards foreign media trends, a section of the public too has decided that their radio will constantly be tuned in to BBC, their TV on CNN while their browser have the New York Times and The Guardian bookmarked.
In conclusion, Dr Ngugi says, whereas it would be easy to paint the “deserters” in bad light, it is important to understand that some of the individuals do not see themselves as Kenyans only but as global citizens too. Their identity has transcended the nation and that this trend will continue since our identity is enlarging; what with dual citizenship and all. Their informational needs are more global than local. The only problem is that this does not make them effective citizens.^