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War on booze: Media should take a sober view

In a country that is nearly 100 per cent religious (over 80 Christian, 10 per cent Muslim) it is impossible to speak out openly in support of drinking alcohol. The Demon Drink is responsible for everything we suffer – from mass poverty, to domestic violence, to illiteracy, to jiggers, to the mpango wa kando crisis, to diseases and early death. Everything.

Except for the ads promoting various brands, nearly all media images of alcohol amplify this narrative of the Demon Drink: TV footage of drunk drivers attempting to run away from cops at a road block, an accident scene where the driver is alleged to have been drunk behind the wheel, a group of school kids arrested for being drunk and disorderly, the permanently drunk character in popular soaps, an inebriated man rolling in the mud, a machete-wielding drunk chasing his wife and kids around the house, police or chiefs pouring out filthy brews, and so on.

Yet this popular, single-story depiction of alcohol is flatly simplistic and hypocritical.

First of all, good people, booze is going nowhere. It is a major economic activity in Kenya, all the way from the barley fields in Narok to the bar stool at Mbao-ini, Kiambu County. Second, millions of Kenyans enjoy their stuff without ever turning up outside the wrong home or chasing anyone with a machete. Like in the rest of the world, drinking is part of Kenyan culture.

Third, alcoholism is a disease. Fourth, the booze industry, like many others, has been infiltrated by unscrupulous operators who sell poison to unsuspecting imbibers. The state has failed to end this menace.

And fifth, there are complex socio-economic issues surrounding alcohol abuse that ought to be exposed and addressed at policy level.

None of these critical issues ever come to the fore in media coverage of alcohol. And whenever – like now – the government launches a campaign against illicit brews, all booze is demonized.

But the “alcohol problem” persists. The so-called stringent Mututho laws regulating consumption of booze don’t seem to have helped. President Kenyatta’s 2015 nationwide crackdown that saw tones of drink poured out, people arrested and drinking joints shut down did not help either.

The socio-economic contexts of alcohol abuse are often completely ignored in these campaigns and the accompanying media coverage. As a disease, alcoholism cuts across gender, class, religion and other social markers. But as an epidemic, this problem is more prevalent is certain groups than others. There must be explanations for this.

Booze is not going anywhere. A national campaign for responsible drinking engaging all stakeholders might be a better try.

Meanwhile, the media as the sober watchdog of society ought to initiate an enlightened national conversation about all the issues surrounding alcohol, and not just trumpet the shallow Demon Drink narrative.

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