How journalism shaped patriotism

By Ezekiel Mutua

Catching up on the headlines about news from Kenya while I was away in Europe two weeks ago, I clicked on the BBC website’s “Country Profile Kenya” and was pleasantly surprised to find a well-designed site with very positive information about this country.

What struck me most, however, was the fact that the BBC website dedicates a whole section to Kenya’s media, and correctly points out that this country has the most robust media in the region.

It opens this way: “Kenya enjoys a more diverse and liberalised media scene than many other African countries, with a large middle class providing a base for substantial advertising revenue”.

It is always gratifying to come across a profile of Kenya that gives such prominence to the historic role of media in national development. I say this because Kenya’s media have a proud history and tradition of impacting on national development, although there is still considerable room for improvement. The State became the main actor in the national development process at Independence, impelled by the spirit of nationalism. The media picked up the cue and amplified these efforts.

The BBC perceptively and quite correctly observes that most Kenyans rely on the broadcast media, particularly radio, for news and that the widespread use of mobiles enables millions to access the web. The mobile platform is particularly important in rural areas.

The BBC site includes a recording of Kenya’s National Anthem and live links to four national newspapers, seven radio stations, eight FM radio stations, nine TV stations and — I was very pleased to note — the Kenya News Agency.

Matters media and their relationship with the whole idea of internal self-rule were much on my mind for this week as I reflected on the 48th anniversary of our self-determination Day, the day on June 1, 1963, that we achieved internal self-government.  

With every step of the way, with every twist and turn, our struggle for self-rule was heralded, chronicled and recorded by media. And, as I said in this column last week, the story of Kenya’s media is the saga of our national development,  a whole  narrative rolled into one.

The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), then known as Voice of Kenya (VoK), was instrumental in the nation-building story. One fact that many a critic of the KBC does not appreciate is that, for all its officialdom and shortcomings, both real and attributed, it was a key builder of the notion of nationhood and citizenship.

 All those live broadcasts of national days and other rallies, all those patriotic songs, all that editorialising, were critical. All inspired Kenyans to love their country and their leaders.  Such pioneer broadcasters as Leonard Mambo Mbotela, Job Isaac Mwamto and Sammy Lui, the last one the director of state functions, personified the national aspirations, and Kenyans adored them, hanging on their every word.

It is these individuals, and many others, who helped build a sense of citizenship, patriotism and of one indivisible and sovereign nation in Kenya’s formative years. Sammy Lui and Mambo Mbotela are still adored by many, obviously their major  fan base    being the older generation and those who,  like myself, treasure nationalism and Kenyanism. 

Mambo Mbotela’s Je, Huu ni Ungwana? remains the clarion call in dramatic form for Kenyans to embrace what truly defines our spirit — warmth, courtesy and civic decency. Sammy Lui remains the region’s hallmark of propriety and system in State function broadcasting, with a rare command of Kiswahili and English and an enviable mastery of emcee-ship at state events.

In print media, the Nation and the Standard, the only national newspapers then, played a key role in the nation building and nation branding project from the beginning. Indeed, the Nation’s, or Taifa’s, very name was pegged to the idea of nationhood at the very tail-end of colonialism in the 1959-63 period.

These were the beginnings of a media sector in Kenya that truly defined the aspirations of the citizenry. But, somewhere along the way, this sense of patriotism gave way to skepticism, cynicism, trivia, vulgarity and instant gratification media that pander to the audience’s love for political sideshows and psychedelics.

It is important for the media to rediscover the principle of patriotism for the new generation of Kenyans, particularly now, as the country heads for its half-century as a Republic under a brand new constitutional and developmental paradigm.

The BBC story is instructive; it is the world’s leading exponent of media and patriotism as well as of quality and reliable journalism,  a living proof that being patriotic is not necessarily being jingoistic, bigoted, superficial  and an agent of falling standards. State-owned and state-controlled from the beginning, the BBC has actually even been an active participant in war — coded messages were embedded in BBC newscasts and other programming at critical junctures during World War II, for the benefit of resistance fighters and military formations in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Patriotism does not undermine the independence or integrity of any medium. In fact, the opposite — lack of patriotism — is what undermines these vital principles. If, as a media house and journalist, you forget even for a minute that the Press exists to serve society, if you cannot identify the best interests of your country and defend them, you have lost the plot entirely.

Patriotism is the complex cocktail of the public interest and nationalism and is underpinned by ethics, tradition, culture and heritage. In line with the BBC tradition, patriotism requires the media to avoid the pitfalls of pursuing narrow self-interests  and profiteering all the time at all costs.

A time has come for us to uphold the virtues and verities of patriotism welded to quality journalism so as to re-establish that symbiotic relationship between media and the state that seems to have been lost over the decades. Have a patriotic week, won’t you!

The writer is the Information Secretary of the Republic of Kenya

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