If the pollsters are right, eight out of ten Kenyans will take media’s word to the bank. When it comes to public trust, it has no rival.
But is media worthy of the faith people have in it, especially in these times of unabashed larceny? When was the last time media ran an expose’ on corruption or misuse of power by those in authority? One would be hard pressed to remember a single case in recent times.
Had the Auditor–General, Controller of Budget, Parliament and others not fingered the shady fat cats in the various state departments, Kenyans would probably not have learnt of the matchless plunder of public resources now obtaining in government.
With the rapacious Uhuru Kenyatta-led elite at the helm, a snoopy media should be quite busy horrifying the public with exposé after exposé detailing the pilferage by the “digital” thieves.
Where the watchdog as close to a billion shillings was was carted away from the National Youth Service coffers to bank accounts held by characters who had probably never counted Sh100,000?
As the dog slept, shifty characters at the Geothermal Authority were busy pretending to be finding solutions to our electricity shortages while in fact they were pinching the expensively borrowed loans.
The watchdog, of course, did not even whimper as billions were wasted on a white elephant called Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme, with empty promises being given as excuses for throwing away good money.
The same watchdog was wagging its tail as proceeds from the Eurobond were spent on creature comforts instead of being used for the purposes for which it was borrowed, until some politician pointed this out.
Of what use is a watchdog that only barks after the thief has either escaped or been caught by other less ferocious dogs? Or could it be that this particular watchdog is lulled to sleep after chewing a bone or two?
Every student of journalism is trained to develop the habit of scepticism and suspicion. All true journalists are sceptical to a fault and will not take anything at face value, because they know that people, particularly those in authority, will always a try to hide something.
It is surprising that editors and journalists, some of whom have been at it for decades, did not up their antennas the moment Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were elected, knowing that the two are former officials of Kanu, a party that was synonymous with graft when it was in power.
Every plan for a mega project should have been subjected to thorough scrutiny and every promise taken with a pinch of salt.
Instead, media let itself be seduced by propaganda about an ambitious and youthful leadership that was going to turn Kenya into a Canaan, a bountiful utopia of smooth roads and fast trains, squeaky clean slums (thanks to NYS!), light in every hamlet, and tech-savvy, laptop tapping kids.
Had media embarked on timely probing of the Jubilee administration, it is likely that some of the thieves would have been nabbed with their hands still in the cookie jar. For instance, had they been curious, they would have noticed that almost all appointments to key positions in the sectors where there would be huge investment such as energy transport and agriculture had gone to people from two politically-correct communities.
As a watchdog, media have a duty to vigilantly monitor government and expose its excesses. The reason the press is sometimes called the Fourth Estate is because it is an institution that exists primarily as a check on those in public office. This is based on the premise that those in power must be prevented from overstepping their bounds.
For the record, Kenyan media is highly regarded in Africa and beyond. The country has good, well-trained and intrepid journalists and an advanced communication infrastructure. But when it comes to ferreting and exposing graft in government, they seem to lack energy, courage and imagination to doggedly pursue the trail of wrongdoing.
Every journalist worth the name knows that there are people in government who are always willing to confidentially share information with any journalist who is keen to expose wrong doing. It cannot be true that no journalist was aware of the theft at NYS, for instance. If one was allowed to speculate, it is possible that some editors and journalists choose not to expose graft after being compromised.
However, things are more complex than that. It is important to note that all influential Kenya media are organised as for‐profit enterprises. This means they sometimes eschew public interest journalism in pursuit of profits. Government happens to be a top advertiser.
Matters are complicated more by the fact that some of the owners of media also happen to be members of the ruling political elite and they will definitely not encourage thorough scrutiny of government.
These notwithstanding, media must remember that they remain the only credible watchmen, especially now that other oversight institutions have been emasculated.
Parliament has proved to be a hopeless overseer, dominated as it is by sycophantic members of the Jubilee. Although it seems to have woken up lately, its composition casts doubts on its ability to check the Executive.
Kenyans have also not forgotten the shenanigans that assailed it earlier in the year when then chair of Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Ababu Namwamba claimed that members of watchdog committees are always on the take.
As for the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), little can be expected from there. For starters, it has no commissioners and its managers seem to be taking orders from the same Executive it is supposed to watch.
Media remains the institution capable of watching over government. While it seems to have found bearing after a disastrous performance at the beginning of the Jubilee administration, it still needs to pull up its socks.
To be fair, Jubilee has over the last two years used all tricks in the book to harass media, with the latest assault being the arrest of a journalist last month for reporting possible misuse of billions at the interior ministry. This should, however, embolden rather than intimidate it.
It should be remembered that in 2013, the government attempted to control them by passing repugnant laws, such as the Media Council Act 2013 and the Kenya Information Communication (Amendment) Act 2013. Last year, there were more gag attempts via the Security laws .All these were promptly overturned by the courts.
The government has also centralised advertising, a move seen as an attempt to deny non-conformist media revenue from government.
The switching off of some TV stations earlier in the year by the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) following a row over digital migration was also seen as part of sustained effort to tame the media.
The government, of course, can never win the battle with media. But to retain the affection of the people, media must always stand for the public interest by exposing corruption.
In any case, in the face of competition from social media, one way professional media can stay afloat is by embracing investigative and watchdog journalism, where professionalism is a must. Otherwise traditional media might find itself irrelevant as start-up ventures by individual journalists take the lead in cutting‐edge investigations, as is happening in other countries. Already some bloggers are at it, although they are yet to command substantial readership.
Media should not take the people’s trust in them for granted, they must strive to sustain it, otherwise somebody else will take it away.