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Philip Ochieng was an illustrious journalist and a fountain of knowledge on virtually all branches of learning /COURTESY

Fifth Estate

Let’s celebrate Press Freedom Day by committing to mentor more Ochieng’s

By William Kisang

The passing on of veteran journalist Philip Ochieng days to this year’s World Press Freedom Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the profession that touches every aspect of our lives.  

Even as Kenya mourns one of its most illustrious journalists, a fountain of knowledge on virtually all branches of learning, we ought to think about the next generation of media men and women who will seek to step into his big shoes.

Are they well equipped to help this country navigate through the brave new world of instant information? What are we doing about our institutions charged with training and educating future journalists? Are we building a reading culture that ensures we produce discerning journalists who can truly educate society?

While we can throw about the cliché that information is power, it is important to qualify this truism that only useful information is empowering. In some developed democracies in the West, for instance, young people often study journalism at graduate school having first had solid grounding in a field of their choice. This kind of background provides a base upon which to build a journalism career.

It is no wonder that some of the most authoritative and gripping books in these countries are written by journalists.

The good book proclaims that to whom much is given, much will be required. Yet perhaps nowhere is this wisdom turned on its head than in the way we train journalists and practice the trade in Kenya.

Granted, the media occupy an important space in all societies. They hold a torch that they shine on society. They are the Fourth Estate.

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And even though the phrase originated in the European concept of the three estates of the realm – the clergy, the nobility and the commoners – it could as well represent the fourth centre of power after the three arms of government. It is also just as powerful if not more – often.

Yet our journalism schools offer media studies programmes right from the undergraduate level to students just out of high school, and the society expects them to miraculously report knowledgeably about engineering, law, science and other branches of knowledge as if they were themselves experts. Is it about time we rethought this model?

Be that as it may, what college does not offer can be acquired through the hard labour of self-training. And there is no better training for a writer than reading widely, as Philip Ochieng taught us.

All the tributes so far written to mourn his demise last Tuesday aged 83 have pointed to how what he learnt in his legendary reading habits always found its way into his stories in an insightful and delightful way.

As we navigate a fast-paced world in which we need to know something about everything on the go, we should encourage journalists to deepen and broaden their knowledge and skills. This not only helps sharpen their writing skills, but also makes them better educators, a key function of the media.

We need, for example, to explore on-the-job training to boost expertise in certain areas of reporting. Journalists can only be true to the tenets of their profession – inform, educate and entertain – if they are well versed in their niche areas of reporting (beats) to the point of expertise.

With this expertise they can become better at disseminating information their audiences can use to improve their lives.

Well-read journalists also inspire media literacy among the general population which is key in ensuring this year’s World Press Freedom Day theme of information as a public good. For as the 2001 Nobel laureate and market analyst Joseph Stiglitz has said, information is a public good and as a public good, it needs public support.

Even in the age of information chaos and overload we have a duty to keep our media sacrosanct as it is they – together with the rest of the civil society – that ensure eternal vigilance without which democracy cannot stand.

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A well-educated journalist, such as what Philip Ochieng’ epitomised, is a strong pillar of democracy and development.  

Mr William Kisang is the chair, Information, Communication and Technology committee in the National Assembly.

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