Open bias by media houses has effects that even they won’t like

Trouble with Kenya is that media outlets, while claiming fidelity to journalistic ideals, are in fact controlled by people either close to or at the beck and call of politicians in power

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By David Matende

In the past, it was State media organs that were used by the ruling party to spread anti-Opposition propaganda while denying them fair coverage. Today, private media are the ones playing this unenviable role.

As the country prepares itself for an obviously tempestuous election, some media corporations, particularly the Nation Media Group, have chosen to throw professionalism out of the window and elected to do laundry work for the ruling party.

Did anyone imagine that the Nation, a paper that has, over the years, created a good reputation to join the ranks of Africa’s best newspapers, could sink to such low levels as to allow itself to be misused by the governing party?

In the months of March and April, for example, the newspaper has, in not so subtle a style, struggled to push the agenda that while the ruling party is gaining support, the Opposition is engulfed in internal power struggles, rendering it a hopeless alternative.

Day in, day out, The Nation published banner after banner headline screaming Opposition disunity while painting cheery picture of the ruling party, with photographs of a happy President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing jubilant “mammoth” crowds.

The outlet’s Kiswahili paper, Taifa Leo, has not been left out of this sensational jamboree, at one time proclaiming “Joto Tele“ in Nasa.

What the editors at the Nation may not know is that, unlike in the past when they could take readers for a ride, today’s reader is smarter, and thus the increased cynicism to not only the NMG, but also the entire Kenyan media.

A while ago, Kenya’s media was among the most trusted in the world. In 2014 for example, a survey found that 85 per cent of Kenyans had some confidence in the Press while about two years ago, an Infotrak survey found out that 64.7 per cent believed in media.

Today, however, the situation is different and our media might soon find themselves in the same league as British media, which has for a long time now been viewed with disdainful scepticism.

The British rank journalist at the bottom of the scale, alongside politicians and real estate agents.

If the current editors at the imposing Nation Centre understood the reasons Kenyans placed so much trust in the media, they would rethink the partisan political stands they have taken.

One doubts that the men and women at the helm of Eastern Africa’s premier media house understand the philosophy behind the founding of the Nation 55 years ago.

In case they have forgotten, the paper was founded at the height of the independence struggle. From the start, the Aga Khan and his early editors decided to support the cause of nationalism and offered a platform to progressive Kanu leaders, such as Tom Mboya, who were banned from the more conservative Standard newspaper.

The Nation identified with the struggles of the common citizen, even as it is conceded that it had a tricky history under the presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, whose one-party dictatorships limited freedom of expression.

Its lowest moment was in 1974, when, in apparent attempt to mislead the public, it reported that controversial politician J.M.  Kariuki, who had been missing, was in Zambia, when in fact he had been killed by people suspected to be close to the President (recently during 43rd anniversary of his death, the paper carried a curious article painting the late politician – widely regarded as one of Kenya’s most popular leaders – as a man who acquired wealth through dubious means).

In the 1980s, the paper, as well as The Standard and the State-controlled Kenya Times, pulled its punches, cowering in face of the harsh Kanu rule. It took new courageous voices such as Society, the Nairobi Law Monthly and Beyond, among others, to press for the expansion of the democratic space.

After the reintroduction of multi-party politics, however, the paper seemed to have found its footing and has generally been on the forefront in the expansion of freedoms, in the process acquiring a huge readership.

But things seem to have gone awry again at Nation Centre, notably after the exit of Joe Odindo and the subsequent appointment of Tom Mshindi – the veteran, if spineless, editor under whose watch the paper seems to have lost bearing.

Not only is the paper biased against the Opposition, it is also losing taste. Like a middle-aged woman engaged in a vain endeavour to recapture her youth, The Nation is bewildered, not sure whether to retain a serious look, or go tabloid. On Tuesday, April 17, it carried a ludicrous headline, We Want Condoms, Say Youth. Nobody (except hookers, maybe) gave it a serious look.

Let’s not even discus the slovenly subbing and proofreading. As the Nation’s fortunes dwindle, its rival on Mombasa Road, The Standard, is showing signs of improvement – easy on the eye and with better headlines.

For a paper that had won the loyalty of the majority of readers, The Nation’s strange behaviour is being treated as betrayal. Before it goofed, this newspaper was selling more copies than any of its peers in Africa, outside South Africa.

Kenyan consumers of newspapers are reviewing the trust they have always had in journalists. They are asking questions as to whether journalists and the media deserve the high levels of trust the public has bestowed upon them. Media have only themselves to blame seeing as they have abused that trust.

Needless to say, professional media are tasked with an agenda-setting role, particularly at such times as now when the country is preparing for a high-stakes election. What agenda are papers like Nation setting?

One would have expected such an influential media house to set a pro-people political agenda; but apparently today’s newsrooms are bereft of editors with the courage to stand up for what is true and proper. Informal discussions with journalists reveal newsrooms with editors ready to sacrifice the truth for 30 pieces of silver and media owners eager to curry favour with the powers that be.

One need not be a journalist or politician to identify the issues that should be driving the 2017 election reporting. For reasons known only to themselves, editors have refused to focus on the disquieting issues of corruption, high cost of living, security and ethnicity among others; instead, they are happy to harp on the melodramatic, particularly concerning the Opposition.

Maybe this is a deliberate strategy to shift focus away from the glaring failures of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

Instead of boring readers with useless stories of petty competition among politicians, The Nation and its ilk should prop institutions that are critical to making sure the country holds free, fair and credible elections.

For example, which journalist has properly investigated the IEBC and enlightened Kenyans on whether or not it is indeed up to the humongous task, or whether the commissioners are the type with the moral courage to do the right thing? Is the Judiciary ready to handle the avalanche of complaints that might arise should the IEBC carry out a shambolic election?  Which journalist has bothered to clarify to Kenyans rumours of a police “militia” that has been trained especially to “finish” demonstrators should the election be disputed?
Operating under one of the world’s most progressive Constitutions, journalists have no excuse not to do the right thing. Why are they not taking advantage of Articles 10, 33, 34, and 35 of the Constitution to do the right thing?

Some people say that the behaviour of newspapers such as The Nation now is characteristic of these news media during election periods.

Having been accused of helping fan post-election violence that followed the disputed 2007 election, media displayed extreme caution and restraint in 2013, bordering on self-censorship.

Media houses issued guidelines before the elections discouraging the use of sensationalist reporting. This may have been a response to a 2008 Commission of Inquiry report that implicated the media in engaging in hate speech during the 2007 election period and its aftermath.

The unwillingness to report or investigate disturbing events had such a bad impact to election-related coverage, with no media house investigating claims of rigging. None probed the IEBC’s claims of the technical problems in the biometric voter register, thereby denying Kenyans information on the deliberate tinkering with the machines.

The watchdog simply surrendered under the guise of not wishing to “disrupt the peace”, as if it is the work of journalists to protect peace. While the reasons for peace messaging were clear, they became a liability when they prevented professionals from doing their work, in the process enabling the country get a leadership it may not have wanted.

In conclusion, let us remind ourselves of the importance of media in elections. Democracy is not possible without a free, fair and plural media. The United Nations Special Reporter on Freedom of Expression says as much.

Trouble with Kenya is that newspapers like The Nation is, while they claim fidelity to these ideals, they are in fact controlled by people either close to or at the beck and call of politicians in power.

They should, however, be informed that negating the right of voters to make informed choices and the right of candidates to put their policies across has its consequences that everyone, including themselves, may not like.

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