Media ‘freedom’ is dead, and other stories from the Fourth Estate

Dwindling revenue means media have to sing to government's tune or 'eat' their independence

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Journalists at State House during the Editors' Breakfast.
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By Luke Mulunda

Pity, if you will, Kenya’s media houses. On one side, they have to be independent, reporting things as they are and even digging out scandals and filth in government, private sector and the civil society. Rarely do they audit themselves, though.

On the other, they need to make money – and lots of it. Often they have to polish their faces and put on a smile to talk to the same parties they hit out at and expose, to get advertising, which is their main source of revenue.

That’s the love-hate relationship that media has maintained with its subjects for a long time, as these parties too need the media to communicate their agenda to the masses.

For some time, media clearly called the shots in a liberal environment, which gave Kenya one of the strongest press in Africa. That’s how Kenyans got to know about Goldenberg and Aglo Leasing, among many other scandals that have hit the government and private sector. Not anymore. The relationship has shifted and hunter has become the hunted. Advertisers, including government, are voting with their wallets. If any media reports negatively about them, they simply zip up the wallets by stopping advertisements.

The last three years of the Jubilee government have been the most turbulent for media, from independent to meek purveyors of censored information and back to pseudo-independence.

It all started three months after President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected. Together with his Deputy President William Ruto, they held a breakfast meeting with editors from Kenya’s media houses at State House Nairobi on July 12. This was the first time the Presidency was hosting editors since independence, and was seen to herald a new era in the media-State relationship.

But this new-found friendship soon hit the rocks and the top two guys turned against the media ‒ at some point, Uhuru dismissed newspapers as meat wrappers after they consistently criticised his government performance.

The Editors’ Breakfast which included about all Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and other VIPs, was historic in many ways. It was the first such gathering at State House, a break from previous governments. President Mwai Kibaki treated journalists with contempt and had no time and respect for them.

His predecessor, President Moi, saw journalists much like “political vermin” that crowded his State House looking for handouts and he responded to their behavior with contempt.

“The UhuRuto duo demonstrated that they were keen to reach out and craft new ways of engagement with the Fourth Estate,” noted Macharia Gaitho, then an editor with Nation but who has since retired.

It’s not clear whether the organisers of the State House meeting got some incentives, or if even those who attended were seen only “in camera”, but it remains a major blight on Kenyan media. Since then, the media has never been the same again. Any slight hit at the government is met with full force of rebuke and, worryingly, legislation that seeks to muzzle media.

Add that to the advertising carrot that keeps dangling on a hungry media industry and you get journalists who have become handcuffed by commercial interests. Journalists thought to be critical of government have found it hard to survive in the new newsroom that puts business before anything else.

There are already a number of victims such as Dennis Galava, who was forced out after publishing a scathing editorial against the President’s performance in the Daily Nation. Others would soon follow, including Sunday Nation investigative and News editors Andrew Teyie and Mugumo Munene, who are said to have been hard on government and big corporates.

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GADO

It’s quite telling that since Nation began its crackdown on critical journalists, the newspaper has been reduced to reporting daily functions and doing political analysis. Popular cartoonist Godffrey Mwapembwa, aka Gado, had to leave Nation Media after the country’s top leadership felt he was too critical of them. He joined Standard in June but he is yet to get his groove back given that the same people who got him out of Nation still call the shots at the Standard Group.

The government is said to have threatened to stop advertising with the leading media houses if they did not reduce their onslaught. From the private sector, Safaricom has suspended advertising with all Nation Media Group outlets after the media house reported a court case that turned out against the mobile operator.

The company – the biggest private advertiser with an annual spend of Sh8 billion – tried to “kill” the article but some people at Nation chose to be independent and the media house paid high price. Now Nation CEO Joe Muganda has issued an order for journalists to safeguard the company’s business interests first, further stifling freedom to write negative stories about other companies as well.

Recent scandals, like corruption at the National Youth Service, where then CS Anne Waiguru was accused of overseeing the embezzlement of close to Sh800 million exposed just how toothless and complacent media had become. Most media houses tried to skirt around the issue, focusing on the small players and leaving the protagonists until reports came out that left media with egg on the face.

Former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru at some point became Kenya’s most headline-catching name. As a darling of the Fourth Estate, she sold stories like hot cakes…

…To continue reading this story, please buy a copy of the magazine available in all leading supermarkets and street vendors at only kshs 350

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