The fundamental events taking place in this country as we move towards the full implementation of the new Constitution and the 2012 General Election require a sober and guided debate.
It is, therefore, critically important that the media guide this process without fuelling the fire of ethnic and political tensions. For this could have disastrous consequences, as happened after the last General Election.
I find it necessary to sound this warning because the media influence perception and shape opinions in ways not comparable to any other force. And, in a country like Kenya, where there are captive audiences who take what the media say as the gospel truth, the journalism sector has a hugely powerful influence on the decisions citizens make.
It is not for nothing that Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once declared that if he had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.
US President Barack Obama took this paradigm to the next level when he said not too long ago that: “The ultimate success of the media is essential to the success of democracy . . . Government without a tough and vibrant media is not an option for the United States of America” – or, if we may add, for any thriving democracy anywhere else in the world, Kenya included.
Obviously, the need for the Press to occupy an adversarial role was clear to America’s founding fathers. That is why they made freedom of the Press the first guarantee of the Bill of Rights. Without press freedom, they knew, the other freedoms would fall. For government, by its nature, tends to oppress.
And government, without a watchdog, would soon oppress the people it had been elected to serve. Kenya has entered a junction in its national saga that is in many respects a historic turning point. A number of profoundly significant scenarios are simultaneously unfolding that, going forward, have many impacts – for good and bad – on many aspects of all our lives and the state of the nation.
The enactment of the new Constitution; the rolling out of the reform process so that it reaches a point where it is irreversible; Vision 2030’s vast infrastructural and ICT projects; the Millennium Development Goals; the lead-up to the landmark General Election next year, including the presidential transition poll; and two major court processes in Europe that revolve around atrocious crimes against humanity committed in Kenya in the 1950s and in 2007-08, are all momentous events.
Contemplating today’s Kenya and the world context we live in leaves many people bothered, bemused and bewildered. In this world of information and disinformation overkill and overdrive, the media have a vitally important role – their role as the roadmap-maker, chronicler, and prime defender of the public interest must be safeguarded with religious zeal.
In their manifestations as societal and political force, the media have a role that is cardinal and sacrosanct. The concept of the Fourth Estate was born in contemplation of the then brand-new Press Gallery in Britain’s Parliament. Yet, almost paradoxically, the Press and the rest of the media as they have evolved since Edmund Burke’s days must never play to the gallery. They must never pander to sentiment or political whims and must always abide by their Guardian-of-the-Public Interest role.
One of the greatest threats to the public interest resides in a limited variety of news and analysis sources, which results in a rollercoaster of overly conservative worldviews. This is why you have the phenomenon, for instance, of hate-radio in Africa, the continent with the least penetration of electrification and ICTs. Kenyans – and all other Africans – must access as great a variety of news and opinion sources as possible.
The news and opinion platforms carried on ICTs must percolate to the grassroots, allowing thinking Kenyans everywhere to make informed choices through both traditional and new media and the interactive interface between both.
Many more Kenyans who are newspaper readers as well as TV viewers and radio listeners need to embrace the new media of e-mail, blogs and other social media. That way, traditional media will be compelled to change for the better in many ways. Among the changes ought to be an exponential improvement in the handling of contemporary issues. And these improvements must be world-class or an increasingly well-informed and sophisticated audience will discard these outlets.
But is there really a cure for the sensationalism in our media today? I have always held the view that there are two important groups of people who keep media sensationalism alive: those who operate the media and those who receive sensationalist media content without questioning it beyond whining, from time to time, about how they were taken for a ride.
Sensationalism is the most insensitive, most numbing and most demeaning of all the strategies employed by rogue media houses to make money. And one of these fine days it will surely be booed off centre-stage and shunned by a public that is finally heartily fed up with having its intelligence serially insulted and deprived of developmental journalism.
It is too bad that, in our day, unlike Jefferson’s two centuries ago, not enough analytical thinking and resources are deployed in examining the impact of a media sector whose underlying motive is to make money without responsibility, regulation or self-restraint.
The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenyaemail:emutua @information.go.ke
Follow us on TWITTER @CapitalFM_Kenya