When the ideal of media freedom is discussed, it is usually in the sense of tolerance for divergent opinion and ideas as a key aspect to democracy. This primacy of this concept today is derived from the fact that we live in the age of the Internet, where social media enables ordinary persons to add their voices to those of formal media.
But the dream that the information age would bring greater enlightenment and compel better accountability is turning out to be just that; a dream. Government is haunted by an aggressive media. For as long as anyone can remember, there have always been attempts to limit or police what ordinary citizens can report or say freely. When the limiting of freedoms of media/expression happens, it is often under the guise of national security/interest. In our age, this has been revised to include censorship on social media time lines, with government insisting that only accredited journalists can report certain matters. But accreditation does not make the reporting authoritative; it is a requirement that makes it legal for the State to pursue journalists as individuals or media organisations, should government not like what is reported.
When media is described as the Fourth Estate, it is on the understanding that journalists have a duty to represent the interests of “the people” in relation to the business and political elites who claim to be doing things in our interest. What we are witnessing in Kenya now is a situation where this Fourth Estate has been so thoroughly cowed and so effectively bullied into submission through a coordinated effort to black out information from the public.
Our wily government has, however, conveniently often misled the public by substituting the word “public” with “national” in explaining tighter regulations. National interest is the sugar-coated term used to refer to state secrecy, and is the justification for keeping things from the citizenry. Public interest, on the other hand, is about disclosure, the right of the people to know. It is this second aspect that is the overriding objective of the Fourth Estate.
The most visible way through which government has done this is through the creation of the central advertising agency, under the guise of arresting waste and streamlining expenditure. The truth is that this agency was created to reward loyal media organisations, and punish “errant” (vocal) ones. The edict is clear: tame your critics or we starve you out of business. What is to be gleaned from this is that is that it is wrong to criticise government, because government says so.
But who is to say the President cannot be disparaged, especially where such disparagement arises from objective, truthful analysis? Isn’t the whole idea of a free media to facilitate the criticism, praise (where it is deserved), questioning, and even insulting the government, if that is what it takes to create change?
Failing on all indices of a free press
A key facet of a free press is its plurality, in the sense of accommodating divergent viewpoints, cultures and ideology. Central to this concept is the availability of information, its consumption and impact. Plurality derives from the notion of a “marketplace of ideas”, where diversity of content supply creates competition between suppliers, and hence facilitates availability of opinion. This is important because it works against the wishes of the elite to exert influence through monopolistic ideas.
When a media house gets to that point where it won’t protect its own, it becomes clear that besides losing the trust of the people, it has no business pretending to checkmate government, the same government that compels it to chew and spit out its own brood.
Parliament has been at hand to approve and rubber-stamp what vile regulations and policies the Executive fancies on any particular day. Since Jubilee took power, no less than three attempts have been made to condense the freedom and space of media. While efforts to stall implementation of these laws have so far succeeded, government is not going to fail forever.
They can sit on the fence and watch as the Presidency tears apart the Kenyan press, but, much as it belongs to them, it is the elites and politicians who will suffer first, and most painfully, when democracy runs out eventually.