Why the Media law is not Satan

January 8, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 9 – It is an old and widely accepted cliché that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. So how is it that we pay more attention to controlling guns than we do to controlling our media? Case in point: much of the communal or ethnic violence anywhere in the world is preceded by media coverage, which, subtly and in some instances overtly, fuels and rationalises racial/ethnic or religious hatred. It would seem imperative to control something with this kind of potential to destroy an entire civilisation.

The Kenyan media has consistently failed in its core mandate and more importantly, ethical obligations. The duty of the media is, first and foremost, to inform the public. Investigating and reporting on facts seems the best way to do this. Kenyan media however has a reputation for focusing more on speculative journalism and turning its focus on other things other than the truth. For instance, during the post election crisis, the media took on the role of mediator at the expense of reporting facts.

According to media practitioners, the now controversial Communications Act is supposed to have a catastrophic effect on investigative journalism. Where were the investigative journalists in early January 2008? Kenyans have to wait for eye witness accounts from inquiry commission reports to string together a coherent story. This is unacceptable. Equity demands that one comes to court with clean hands and unfortunately the media cannot claim to have clean hands.

Content regulation has seemingly gone to the dogs. It’s about time someone paid attention to what is being broadcast. Kenyan media has become for lack of a better phrase, tabloid press. News is sensationalistic material meant to provoke reactions rather than inform objectively. Facts aren’t checked and it is not unusual to see a retraction almost every other day. The investigative journalism that is being so fiercely defended now is currently limited to a few government scandals that didn’t take much brain power to figure out and various social exploits of public figures. Provocation is the goal, not information.

Woe unto you if the media takes interest in your private life as this often equates and presents itself as a violent assault. In many western countries, the media is estopped from intruding too shamelessly into the private lives of public personalities. In Kenya, as well as many other third world countries, there is no such restraint. Unsubstantiated rumours about a person’s social and sometimes official conduct are exploited at large. The only protection public figures can avail of consists in making payments to reporters so they keep quiet or as we have seen, legislating harsh laws to deal with it.

Journalists have been unable to regulate themselves. Unlike the Law Society of Kenya or The Medical Practitioners Board, both the Kenya Union of Journalists and The Media Council of Kenya have yet to be relevant. It has not attempted, let alone made any notable achievements in taming the errant industry that is media today. There is no effective policy on journalistic conduct. It is therefore perplexing that the media would still ask to regulate itself when evidence is that it is incapable of disciplining its so called ‘members’.

To quote a notable code of journalistic conduct, “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”  To fulfill this task, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth and his first loyalty is to the people.

Let’s shed the emotional rhetoric and western-influenced ideology and focus on a common agenda and on common values. In doing so, we can start looking at solutions. The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Free and informed people will not stand by and watch that very source of information get dismantled. In other words, had the media been faithful in fulfilling it’s mandate and ethical obligations, it would have received overwhelming support from the public without bombarding it with more biased information.


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