Journalism, like all labours of love, is not for the faint hearted. That is why we found reason, amid gloom and heavy clouds, to celebrate committed colleagues who remain true to ethical values.
They withstand intense pressure in their daily work and have to contend with silvery-tongued know-it-alls and debonair thieves, two-faced politicians, self-obsessed pseudo-experts and false prophets. They are humble in greatness, humming softly in their notebooks and into both sides of cameras. Others artfully but silently polish and sharpen on the subs and production desks in print, broadcast and online, and some strategise, innovate, lead, train and mentor.
That is why we celebrate these heroes for they have stood strong to hold power to account during the most trying periods in journalism ever. As the world marks press freedom day, under a very apt theme of journalism without fear or favour, the Kenya Editors Guild has a message for the citizens, their leaders and for journalists.
First, some context. Critical journalism is a public service that has until now been enabled through media business. The structure of this business has been such that the advertiser pays for citizens to get trusted reporting and analyses. Advertising revenue has migrated with a sizable chunk getting exported, hence it can no longer support strong journalism.
A sobering statistic is that the profitability of Kenya’s mainstream media has shrunk by an estimated 75 per cent in five years! In practical terms, therefore, there are fewer experienced journalists available to do the public duty, hence the watchdog is getting smaller in size at a time when graft and disinformation is all the rage hence more sophisticated vigilance is needed. Kenya’s democracy is in jeopardy unless urgent policy and legislative measures are taken. No democracy survives without accountability journalism.
So the question is, how can Kenya protect its journalism so that it can serve the citizens without fear or favour?
The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged humanity through poor health and savage impact, but few have realised that the media too is its patient. In a matter of weeks, the pandemic has put public journalism into serious focus by testing its ability to live up to its tri-faceted democratic mandate: providing timely, credible and important information; offering a robust forum for the public/citizens to debate key questions; and holding power to account.
The ravages of the pandemic on the media have exposed and escalated sustainability challenges in the industry that need urgent policy attention and intervention if the Constitutional duty citizens expect of the media is to be delivered effectively going forward.
The Kenya Editors Guild, on behalf of senior editors, but also of journalists and the media fraternity generally, has engaged the executive and the legislature on many of these questions. We have submitted policy proposals outlining short term and long term measures to protect the industry. We have also discussed with the National Assembly and the Senate legislative reforms to protect accountability journalism. We have also demonstrated to the judiciary how pre-emptive gag orders and predatory court awards suffocate free media.
Journalists must innovate. Indeed away from the public glare, all the key newsrooms are engaged in major projects to find new ways to remain sustainable. Some of the new ideas may take good journalism out of reach of the poor, which is concerning.
Urgently, those who benefit from good journalism must contribute to the expensive process needed to produce it. The State must put in place measures to ensure Google, Facebook and other international tech platforms the ride on locally produced content that serve the public interest are contributing to its cost. Similarly, measures are needed to ensure monies owed to the media by public sector entities are paid without delay on an ongoing basis. And there are tax breaks that have been adopted by democracies to sustain their journalism.
Today we bring our case to the citizens, for whom we are messengers. Protecting journalism is not a matter only for journalists. The public needs journalism that it can trust, therefore it is the most critical stakeholder in fixing this problem. Journalists, to help this, have a duty to report on media issues too. Changes and realities need to be discussed openly in the public interest. Solutions must of necessity be checked against the principles of journalism without fear or favour.
Churchill Otieno is the president of the Kenya Editors Guild, and Managing Editor for Online and New Content at Nation Media Group.