Kenya has benefitted immensely from media freedom

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By WILLIAM RUTO

I am immensely delighted to join you in commemorating the World Press Freedom Day. I notice that you have strengthened this important occasion by including a Media Convention, complete with a comprehensive and enriching programme, as well as the fourth edition of your Annual Journalism Excellence Awards.
This means that this day is not about empty gestures and ceremonial pantomime, but is a real, value-adding event worthy of its theme, original meaning and intent.

Without a doubt, Kenya has benefitted tremendously from media freedom and the freedom of expression. It is important to always recognise that these freedoms were hard-won, and that the sacrifices made by some of the heroes of the Fourth Estate are milestones in the country’s journey to our present dispensation.

Although freedom is a necessary human good, it is a tragedy that in nearly all societies, it has been secured at great sacrifice. It is therefore critical that we spend this day in reflecting on our commitment to this freedom in our different capacities.
The Government’s commitment to media freedom and expression is solid, evident and unshakeable. No one in our beautiful country may be punished for their opinion. As long as we understand the totally reasonable limitations to the freedom of expression- like spreading hate and incitement and so on- we are all free to project our views as robustly as we like without having to look over our shoulders.

Of course the media environment and the practice of journalism is not without its challenges. What is heartening is the sincerity, energy and commitment with which our media confront most of these challenges. I will say without any fear of contradiction that our media is captained by some of the best personnel to be found anywhere in the world.

Anyone who has travelled will agree with me that collectively we are trying to do the right things.

Having said so, I will point out that one of the most critical challenges to media freedom is actually not external, but largely internal to the media industry.

It is the disgraceful phenomenon of undue influence on editorial policy direction. These influences range from actual corruption induced by influential stakeholders to distort journalism products – be it commentary, news, features and the like- in a manner that does not reflect relevance or topical priority. We have witnessed this phenomenon time and time again. This is what probably led to one Media House to run an advert rejecting ‘Brown Envelope Journalism’. To the media: Credibility is everything. This credibility is built on the integrity of individual journalists, which essentially

boils down to their resistance to brown envelopes and other undue influences be they economic, political or social.
Another insidious challenge to journalistic integrity and media credibility is the irresistible pressure to conform with often illegitimate interests of some media owners.

There is also an unspoken rule that the personal interests of individual owners or influential stakeholders must be defended or promoted defended even at the expense of credibility.

When the Government moved to execute its commitment to media freedom by stewarding the transition to Digital media platforms, we witnessed another side of the media. The commitment was constitutional insofar as it stemmed from a treaty. We had consulted, discussed and debated for long; it was time for action. Sections of Media ownership were unhappy with our modus operandi and resulted to one of the most vicious propaganda campaign ever witnessed in the free world.

This campaign purported to defend freedom of expression and of media. But the arguments in support were thin on that score, and heavy on discussions over loss of investment.

Freedom of media means both the freedom to disseminate topical material to the consumer, and the freedom to allow as many players as possible to do so. Media freedom is not the property of tyrannical capitalist interests. It is not a gambit to deploy in politico-commercial interaction. It is a public good. I encourage the media, both at editorial and ownership levels to stretch the province of media freedom and eradicate the in-house dynamics which hamper the realization of a fuller freedom.

I call on journalists to free their consciences by practising greater professional integrity and rejecting every manifestation of the insidious interests.

The media is mandated and expected to hold all public, private individuals and institutions to account. I will declare here that the media in Kenya has always done an excellent job and they should continue.

But surely, you will agree with me that there lingers a substantial sense of hypocrisy sometimes on how events and issues are covered.
I believe that, for instance, it is improper to molest the public with pointless, ego-massaging coverage of some issues, events and opinions when they have been compromised.

Any media replete with vested interests, festering with corruption cannot help us achieve and maintain integrity in our society. It is this credibility challenge that we need to address.

Let us not call our media’s commitment to freedom and liberalisation into question. Digital migration is a change that requires skilful management and astute strategic thinking. It is a process which calls for quick adaptation, since resistance is unwise and futile. The cheese has moved. How we manage this revolution determines if, and how quickly we will track and recover the cheese.
Digital media is ICT reimagined. It is a vast open space replete with opportunity and full of challenges. The first opportunity-challenge duality is competition.

It is all about the most effective way of recovering the cheese. The second is innovation. Digital media is happening at a time of incredible demographic revolution. A new generation of billion savvy young people are socializing easily in the digital, environment. In so doing, they uphold their global diversity and individual identities while forming a concrete consensus on what works and what doesn’t. The very survival of marketers, politicians, manufacturers and the media depends on dealing with the frank and often blistering feedback of the Savvy Billion. This feedback is always simplified into success or failure, profit or loss. As we have said before, this new world of digital media relies on vocabulary like “real-time” and “viral” to describe its key pillars.

The most successful player in the digital environment will not be who started with the greatest capital. The most successful will be the most competitive. And the most competitive will be the most innovative. One simply has to keep working hard and smart to satisfy an impatient market with countless alternatives.

We have witnessed the transformation that digital media promises Kenyans. Very soon, every sector of our economy, including, and especially the public sector, will be managed on digital platforms. The management of information now requires new skills. It is getting harder to keep secrets. Media embargoes mean little when all one needs is a leak to a blogger. Running the news cycle is punishing toil because the competition is unregulated and therefore not held to any editorial standard. While the editors and reporters are still engaging sources, an item might already be trending, in crude, unvarnished format, on digital platforms.

Naturally, regulation in the public interest becomes a challenge. Credibility and responsibility is also an issue – I have spotted a few bogus death announcements on social media among other issues. Reputations suffer. But a new environment calls for reorientation of governance parameters. The Judiciary has sounded the first note: individuals must bear personal liability for defamatory matter appearing on their new media accounts. This means that individuals must operate at some minimum journalistic standard when discussing issues and people. The most responsible and credible therefore have an advantage. All is not lost. But innovation is a must.
We must always remember that our digital media is an opportunity to harness the freedom of thought, expression and media to generate significant socioeconomic transformation. This opportunity is underpinned by a strong tradition of freedom, which must never waver or cease.

I have two more points to raise on what we do with our freedom. One of them is based on the fact that economic competitiveness depends on innovation, and access to education and information. We look to ICT to provide solutions to problems of access to information stored in far-flung places, to translate or repackage it into something useful.

We have focused our attention to access to libraries, archives and portals where knowledge is stored without once asking who generated that information and knowledge. As a result, we have poor confidence in our ability to generate knowledge. I believe that the promise of digital media encompasses the very real possibility of us curating traditional knowledge, significantly expanding our research capability, documenting our innovations and contributing meaningfully to global knowledge systems. In all we do, we must strive to become self-sufficient by becoming generators, not consumers of knowledge, goods and services. Aspiration to become an economic and industrial hub is necessarily accompanied by an ambition to become a Knowledge Society.

Last, but not least, I pose a vital challenge. The digital revolution is the arrival of humanity’s greatest promise ever documented. It is an opportunity like no other. Our media must not take it for granted. But traditional weaknesses in our media will be compounded grievously if the opportunity does not encounter proper stewardship. This calls on our media locally and throughout Africa to assert themselves. It is a moment for our media to finally realize self-determination. Traditionally, our media have been content to be funnels of other people’s narratives in decisive and critical moments.

These narratives serve an agenda which are not universal. They are developed with great deliberation, and ruthlessly propagated to sustain an unjust world order and improvident socio-economic interests. The owner of the narrative is king. For long, Africa has held the short end of the stick. Our voice has been stifled forever. Our story remains untold. The voices that speak for us are treacherous, hypocritical and deceptive. The stories told of us, and on our behalf defile our heritage and identity.

We have to tell our story in our voice. If Kenya must remain a leader in media freedom and progressive narrative development, our media must consciously seek to tell our story. The world must know that we also make, innovate, heal, lead, govern and enjoy. We must let the world know that we are not all about violence, corruption, hunger, disease and poverty. There is an obligation to tell the truth always. But there is also an obligation to Interrogate other people’s truths and the agenda they serve, and tell our side accordingly.

Today, I call on our media to emancipate themselves. This digital moment is pregnant with possibility: of true freedom, independence and self-determination. Let us seize it with both hands.

(These remarks were made by Deputy President Ruto at an event to mark the 2015 World Press Freedom Day in Nairobi)

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