Self-censorship; the enemy within

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David Matende

Would you imagine that in this era of freedom of expression, a major media house would actually show a journalist the door for speaking truth to power?

Apparently at Nation Media Group, editors are not at liberty to criticise the government, never mind the rhetoric about the media group standing for the truth and being committed to the public interest.

The harsh reality dawned on one of Nation newspapers editors, Denis Galava, who was fired for penning a no-holds-barred editorial on the mediocre performance of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration in 2015. The editorial pulled no stops in urging the President to up his game in 2016

Thinking that as a writer, he was performing a noble duty by pointing out that the King was naked, it turned out that he was actually naïve, because as far as his employer was concerned, such was a misadventure that did not auger well for the paper’s bottom line.

Once again, commercial interests had triumphed over journalistic duty at the country’s leading newspaper, and the Nation Group had once again been exposed for what it is – a purely commercial venture that pays lip service to freedom of expression.

The editor was accused of “not following due process and endangering the group’s business,” an unequivocal statement that the Nation is in the business of making money first and serving the public interest last.

By disparaging the President’s performance, the editor had apparently stirred a hornet’s nest, and he was promptly stung.  It appears the editorial provoked the ire of government mandarins who might have intimidated Nation chiefs with threats of withdrawing government advertising.

The editor was innocent enough to believe his employer’s claims to impartiality, fair play and all the other platitudes on professional journalism.  Now he knows that the Nation not only supports the government but would also not hesitate to dump anyone whose actions threaten its most important source of bread.

The message sent to journalists at the Nation and other media houses through the sacking is that commercial, political and ownership interests continue to underpin the state of Kenyan media.

They may claim independence, but none of Kenya’s big media has so far been able to resist the temptation to pander to the interests of powerful political and commercial players. The typical Kenyan media house struggles to strike a balance between manipulation by the owner(s), satisfying the corporate advertisers and serving the public interest – in that order.

None of them seems to have leant the lesson that fawning to the whims of the owner(s) has its consequences. The history of media in Kenya is full of examples of media that lost credibility (and revenues, consequently) for accepting to be used as government megaphones.

The influence of the ownership is usually conveyed through ambiguous editorial policies and also through capricious in-house corporate cultures that only wily journalists within newsrooms understand and follow, but which naïve ones like Galava fail to grasp, with dire consequences.

Clever journalists in practically all newsrooms know who not to give prominence to in their stories, how to treat stories from the owner(s) and generally who should never be criticised in news and opinion columns, or news bulletins and comments.

Threaten interests

In most Kenyan media houses, the ownership is covert and therefore woe unto the journalist who naively reports or publishes an article deemed “injurious” to the owners’ interest.

Although Galava’s bosses tried to explain the sacking, saying the editor had flouted company policy regarding editorial writing, nobody believed them. The newspaper has in the past written more belligerent editorials with no personal consequences to the writers.

Suppose the editorial had criticised the performance of the Opposition using even stronger adjectives, would the Nation still have s sacked the writer? Your guess is as good as mine.
The assault on press freedom at Kenya’s premier news house comes at time when the political freedoms that Kenyans fought for and won are being eroded.

This column has always argued that although the Jubilee government is afraid of a free press and would do anything to control media; they have an accomplice in the form of an enemy within – media owners and editors who are ready to do the government’s bidding and who are also ready to lick the boots of Big Business for survival.

No wonder the country’s press freedom ratings have been on a downward spiral since President Kenyatta became president in 2013. Reporters Without Frontiers puts Kenya at position 90 out of 180 countries surveyed. It plays in the same league with Burundi, Mali, and the Central African Republic and Burundi, whose decline in media freedom is attributed to civil and military conflict.

For a country that that had made a strong showing in the press freedom ratings under the Mwai Kibaki presidency, this is an inauspicious development. A country’s democratic development is largely dependent on free expression and suppression of this freedom is a sure pathway to political dictatorship

It is universally accepted that everyone has the right to express and disseminate his opinion. This right is enshrined in constitutions, charters and conventions all over the world. Journalists exercise this freedom more because of the nature of their work.

It goes without saying that only a free, independent and functioning media can guarantee that right, because media are channels that provide the information that enables citizens to make informed decisions and hold elected representatives accountable.

Many journalists and media scholars argue that the really enemy of press freedom is not government, but media owners and big businesses. National media is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, most of them with connections to the powers that be.

To make matters worse, cross-media ownership is the norm, meaning that the people who own newspapers are the same ones that own TVs, radios and on-line publications.
So while, on paper, Kenya has a diversity of media outlets (radio, TV and newspaper), in reality these are controlled by just a few. Radio is king, with between 85-90 per cent of adult Kenyan’s receiving news and information via this medium.

Is it not ironical that a society as diverse socially, economically and politically as Kenya is at the mercy of media owned and controlled by an exclusive club of a few men keen to promote the political and commercial welfare of a certain elite?

The Aga Khan may be the  majority shareholder of the Nation Media Group, but a clique of  local businessmen own the bigger percentage of the public shareholding, which gives them strong boardroom, and consequently editorial power.

By sacking journalists  and generally suppressing opinion, the Nation is telling everyone that it is a politically and commercially driven media that is primarily loyal to sponsors such as advertisers and government rather than to the public interest, and that the content its outlets carry is largely influenced by big businesses and political standpoints.

That should worry political players opposed to the government as they will find it difficult to push their agenda through a media that is subservient to the state. With election due next year, they should be very worried.

Consequences

Studies have shown that during elections, the candidates that receive the most media coverage usually wins elections because information disseminated through the media has a notable influence on perceptions held by audiences.

If the Nation does not see the light, however, it should know that there are consequences. The reason readers have respected the newspapers for more than 50 years is because they look up to it to watch over the powerful on their behalf; they consider it the best watchdog of government.

With very corrupt and exclusive political elite in power, the need for a free and professional media that is committed to public interest has never been so urgent. One hopes that the Nation and her competitors would see the light and work for the people who ensured that they are protected by the Constitution.

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