The outbreak of the Coronavirus in Kenya as in the rest of the world has seen the country make emergency plans, including sharing information to the public on what is being done to protect the country through the media. The increasing cases of COVID-19 and related intervention by the Government to arrest the spread has seen the introduction of stern measures that are conveyed through the media. As expected, this has changed the national discourse and with increased demand for information by the public in relation to dealing with the virus, which has put a lot of pressure on the media, which were already experiencing hard times because of the global meltdown.
The government has acknowledged that the media is playing an essential role in the war against COVID-19. The coronavirus outbreak has changed the national discourse and with increased demand for information by the public in relation to dealing with the virus, more is needed to look and focus on the media channels that are churning out the information. The coronavirus outbreak has not spared the media, and the slow down of the economy- with drastic fall in activities including public events, working from home and fall in advertisements, the media industry is facing near collapse-revenue sources have dried up amidst increased demand for information, which has seen a number of them sack staff and reduce operations to the detriment of the public interest need to share information. Some has slashed employees’ salaries to remain afloat.
The raft of measures including working from home, reduction in revenue streams for the media as a result of the slow down in economic activities because of the partial lockdown of the country, increased recurrent expenditures and related, media is reeling under untold economic suffering. Indeed, in their letter to the Government, the Media Owners Association raised the matter citing the essential services the media plays including in the current war against the pandemic. They requested for consideration in the support being given to other critical service providers. Members of the digital Broadcasters Association have also raised the economic challenges their nearly 40-member stations are going through and require financial help like other Small and Medium Size Enterprises. Operational costs have become non-sustainable and without support, they might close down. The Communication Authority of Kenya stepped in and directed content couriers to waive costs of content distribution for the digital TV stations.
A number of media houses had earlier this year announced plans for mass sackings, and this situation puts them in a very awkward situation. A number of them have already asked staff to take between 25% to 30% pay cuts, while operational costs for the safety of their journalists and setting up work from home arrangements have gone up. This, with reduced Government activities thus reduced advertisements and poor sales for the print media has seriously destabilised the media sector. We have nearly 200 FMs, 92 TV stations and nearly 100 online and mainstream publications across the 47 Counties.
The inability of the media to operate fully during this emergency will frustrate government efforts to enhance public education/awareness and agenda setting on the pandemic. Any chance to allow convoluted information flow across the country on the coronavirus is bad especially in this era of misinformation. To execute proper public communication, the government, UN agencies, development agencies, and other partners need to use multiple channels and one of the most dominant is the media.
With media sacking journalists in large numbers and reducing operations thus denying the Government and elected leaders the chance to shape public opinion and educate Kenyans on the coronavirus, this has denied the public the opportunity to determine the implications of the implementation, scope, of governance issues among others. Access to quality and factual information through media and other channels is essential for individuals and groups, as well as human rights monitors, to be able to scrutinize the state’s implementation of its obligations on the right to health. As a result of their ability to reach and influence large numbers of people, the media is perceived to carry immense power in socialisation and shaping the course of people’s attitudes and behavior, which is currently needed in Kenya as we struggle with COVID-19.
The support extended to the media through the funds will add value to the overall government interventions on running public service announcements, government communication of prevention messages and involvement of elected leaders in shaping agenda and required behavior change at this critical time. The resources will be extended to the media houses to ensure essential services like generating editorial content, facilitating reporters and meeting recurrent expenditures- power, airtime and staff facilitation as a way of ensuring they remain in operation.
Some media houses might never make it back even after the current crisis, so the government to save the industry must think about it in addition to extending financial support that can be converted into public service announcements on the COVID-19 in this critical stage of mass public education and awareness campaign to gain public support, consideration on tax rebates on printing and broadcasting materials, clearing outstanding debts owed to media houses, reduction or removal for monthly licencing fees among others are needed in addition to other bailout measures
Bwire works at the Media Council of Kenya as the Head of Media Development and Strategy.