Media cannot escape graft scrutiny

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On many issues, I do not share the same views with David Makali, the chief executive of the Media Institute and Expression Today, Kenya\’s only regular magazine-length review of the multi-media journalism sector. The publication also claims an East Africa-wide focus and outreach.

While I hold Makali in the highest esteem as a proficient writer and editor, I have always objected to the brand of journalism that serially maligns people, disparages government officials for the sake of it and makes character assassination a sport.

However, I have never been churlish or mean. Therefore, I always give credit where it is due. This is why I wholly and unhesitatingly salute Makali\’s latest edition labelled: "Exposed, Dirty Hands – Corruption in Kenyan Media", in which he hits the nail squarely on the head on this touchy subject.

Media corruption has never been an easy subject for journalistic investigation. This 17-page report is a milestone treatment of an issue that is highly-sensitive, indeed volatile. Inside the media houses, the subject of media corruption is both a no-go area – a veritable No Fly Zone – and the crime that dares not speak its name.

Yet graft inside the media sector is so pervasive as to be heading towards a systemic status. It is to be appreciated that Makali and his team have taken the trouble to do a meticulous and thoroughgoing job of research as well as interviewing a number of prominent voices in the profession.

Media corruption is by its very nature an organised crime, complete with networks and cartels, godfathers, hit-men and bagmen. The hit-men are the writers or hacks who are used to do hatchet jobs. They approach their corrupt tasks with all the malign intent and specialisation of actual assassins, their stock-in-trade being character assassination.

The bagmen collect the really big cash payoffs which they distribute to the various cartels and Mafia formations in the newsrooms – they are essentially PR practitioners and publicists, mostly former journalists who walk from street to street rapaciously scouting for anyone mentioned negatively in the media.

The cabal of hit-men in the media includes some very senior editors. It is rampant among gossip columnists, crime reporters, court reporters and parliamentary reporters. This is contrary to the notion, in many circles, that this transgression is the preserve of yellow press operatives in the backstreets.

The media mafia ropes in owners, managers, editors, reporters, photojournalists and correspondents as well as PR firm owners, directors, managers, officers and sales executives.

Expression Today goes a step further to raise the question of cross-cutting directorships in the media and other private corporate sector boardrooms, all complete with names and designations – the picture that emerges amounts to boardroom incest. I mean this seriously.

Poor work conditions and remuneration are the bane of the newsrooms. But, in Kenya, the top executives and boardroom members attract some of the best pay packages and perks in the private sector.

Expression Today candidly and refreshingly engages in the untouchable subject of media corruption in the same issue that it runs a special feature on the New Kenya.

The public sector, for instance, seems, all of a sudden, to be under siege, with the focus being on corruption in the public service. Only in the media – the watchdog sector itself – do things continue to be business as usual.

This state of affairs must not go on. The era of poor pay and conditions in the newsrooms, to the accompaniment of world-class insider-trading skulduggery in the boardrooms, must be vigorously interrogated by the anti-corruption watchdogs.

A permanently tainted and corrupt media sector is incapable of serving the New Kenya competently. The failure to genuinely inform, educate and entertain with integrity does, in turn, result in disenfranchising the national population in the most pernicious ways. For the media to be a credible custodian of the public interest, they must be like Caesar\’s wife – beyond reproach.

(Ezekiel Mutua is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke)

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