BY MBUGUA MUCHOKI
With the International Criminal Court chief prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, releasing the names of suspects who bear the greatest criminal responsibility, political temperatures will rise, doubts will be cast, and others will celebrate for various reasons.
For the media, though, beside the announcement and attendant reactions offering hot news to sustain for a while, important lessons need not be lost in the ensuing political dust. Now that a radio journalist, Joshua arap Sang, is among the suspected masterminds of the post election violence, the role of the media in, and during, conflicts is even more critical.
Critical issues emerge, are journalists and other media practitioners just mere reporters; unquestioning conveyors of every information? Are they supposed to be more watchful as gate-keepers of external information – in this case the audiences and news sources, and of themselves too?
While we have no information on culpability of Arap Sang, and we can only leave it to the competent authorities to determine, we nevertheless can draw some important lessons on media use, and the role of journalists, professionally and ethically, in times of conflict. The immediacy offered by broadcast media is unparalleled, its potency too. Words are fast fading, they cannot be taken back. Thus, those who have the opportunity use to the media, especially broadcast, must be fit to be there, and rational enough to know what to say, and what to keep off air, when to speak, and when to keep their silence.
I refuse to condemn Arap Sang, for his alleged actions, or omissions, offer media practitioners learning lessons.
Today, with the new media entrenching itself as an interactive forum to engage consumers of news products on offer in the media, the trends, and comments in such fora, are worrying. A visit to any of our media websites, blogs or social network sites is a torturing exercise for any one who cares about the future of this country. The anonymity offered by the internet meets its match in the criminal and disparaging comments posted. And it is across the board, in all media houses. Few, if any, care to filter, or moderate such comments. That our media have failed to put mechanisms to censure unpleasant content, often insulting and inciting communities, individuals or groups against each other, is professionally negligent and inexcusable of them. Offering an internet platform to criminals, for that is what these anonymous internet users are, with its global reach, is perhaps more venomous than airtime on a vernacular radio with limited reach, maybe.
Also, to what extent then can a journalist go to advance a cause, individual or corporate? It is highly unlikely that in the current media set up in Kenya, a journalist in his individual capacity can advance and sustain a personal agenda for long. Therefore, media practitioners must remain true to their professional and ethical calling, create a critical and professional distance that affords them the rationality needed to be prudent in their decisions. This may include, painfully as it may sound, opting out of media outlets that require them to engaging in what would critically pass for incitement or unethical conduct.
Importantly, journalists, in conflicts or otherwise, are not just conveyor belts of news and information, and must forever take control of their microphones and other channels of communication.
They have a cardinal obligation to remain calm and rational when everyone else losses theirs. A starting point should be the call-in shows that have become fora for hate speech, and whipping ethnic and sectarian emotions. When they become part of the crowd, Journalism, a noble profession, is the greater loser. Ocampo’s list, therefore, with its strengths and weaknesses, offers the media an important lesson to learn; that responsible Journalism is not a corporate or personal choice to make, it is an obligation!