Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was one of the most remarkable statesmen who ever lived. He was also a polymath, a Jack of all trades and a master of an astonishing number, including the subject of Press freedom and responsibility.
He was, among many other things, the first US Secretary of State, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Jefferson Bible, a volume that distils what he thought were the best words of Christ.
He was an architect, archaeologist, inventor, horticulturist, and paleontologist. When, in 1962, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, invited 49 Nobel Prize winners, including Chief Albert Luthuli of South Africa to a White House dinner, he made the following unforgettable witticism about his predecessor: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
To this day, Jefferson stands out as the one major statesman in all of history who had the most to say about freedom of the Press. And he said it well, cogently and articulately, even when he totally lost his temper and patience with the newspapers of his day.
No one has elucidated the cause of freedom of the Press in the English language more passionately than he. The majority of his remarks on media freedom and democratic responsibility have acquired an aphoristic force, the sort of timelessness that one finds mostly in the Bible and in Shakespeare.
A review of Jefferson’s remarks on freedom of the Press always rewards the effort with gems of pure and effortless wisdom that remains relevant to media in Kenya.
To this day, the idea of an educated and informed citizenry remains the ideal of any serious media house and any serious practitioner of journalism.
Educated and informed people are, after all, empowered persons and the very fabric of democracy and freedom of the Press and the even more crucial, freedom of expression depends on such a people. It was Jefferson who said that if it were left to him to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.
But he was also quick to add that every man should have the right to receive newspapers and be capable of reading them. I am not sure Jefferson would make the same choice if he were to come alive today and find himself contemplating Kenya’s media scene. I have personally advocated a third option to Jefferson\’s – a combination of the best of government and the best of media, because both are crucial and make existential claims about serving the public interest.
They are also quite simply unavoidable facts of life and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. As for the power and assumptions of infallibility that sometimes consume those who sit in top editorial chairs, Jefferson held the view that an editor should be independent of personal influence, and not be moved from his opinions on the mere authority of any individual, whether the government or the media owner, or even the news source who foots his bills.
Like Jefferson, I have had issues with journalists who think that independence requires them to always follow their own opinion, without respect for that of others. As I have argued in this forum before, freedom without responsibility is a recipe for chaos. When journalists find themselves differing with others on a particular issue on account of their political or religious beliefs, then the mature thing to do is to re-examine their positions and act with humility and restraint.
There are times when my readers and media critics, like Mutegi Njau, accuse me of appearing to despair of the Press and to say terrible things about them. This claim can come only from a person who has never been on the receiving end of the media. Yet, I must hasten to say, not every journalist in Kenya writes maliciously.
It is the few bad apples that spoil the reputations of others.
There are times when personal prejudices appear to be the criteria for determining who is covered positively and who is to be massacred by the Press. The way the media treat newsmakers, especially the showy and cantankerous politicians, is appalling, to say the least.
Yet the public interest duty of the media places a higher responsibility on their shoulders to report the truth as keenly as they can. It is too bad really that, in our day, unlike in Jefferson’s two centuries ago, not enough analytical thinking and resources are being deployed into examining the impact and consequences of a media sector, particularly in the light of the Second Republic.
(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenyaemail:emutua @information.go.ke)