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Interrogating calls for state bailout of media houses

Sooner or later Covid-19 will end, the economy will start rebounding and media will be on the road to recovery. Our media houses will need good people to drive recovery, but will find good people don’t need them anymore. Shortermism is a killer – Macharia Gaitho, veteran journalist

More than 300 journalists have lost jobs in the last nine months, Kenya Editors’ Guild says. An already difficult business environment was made worse by the outbreak of Covid-19 in March.

Scribes who are working under stressful conditions – brutal pay cuts while required to deliver the same heavy amounts of work – have not been counted.

KEG described these measures as “absolutely necessary” in the face of drastic decline in revenue. But the editors raised the alarm over some actions of certain media houses.

“There is justifiable room for concern, however, that some of the austerity measures are being implemented in ways that are unfair to those affected, and in the long run will harm the practice of journalism in Kenya,” the guild said.

The Nation Media Group embarked on another round of layoffs last week following the infamous sackings at Mediamax. It remains to be seen what newsrooms will look like if the current crisis persists, say, in the next six months.

What should be done to support the media at this time is a complex question. KEG proposed five points: the government should create a Media Sustainability Fund as has been done in Europe and the US.

Well, this has already been done by the Media Council of Kenya, which in 2018-2019 mobilised various sectors including marketing communication, journalists’ unions, editors, media owners and academia to develop “media diversity fund mechanisms”. The documents are still being considered by the ICT Ministry.

Second, national and county governments should pay pending bills owed to media houses.

The editors said the Communications Authority should waive licensing and signal carriage fees for media houses.

Fourth, the government ought to consider offering media houses tax incentives and other measures in the same way it has offered to support revival of tourism industry and other sectors.

And fifth, industry players should organise counselling and other support for media workers.

KEG’s attempt to think through possible solutions to the current crisis is appreciated. But why are editors speaking for media owners? The editors are employees and media houses – except public media – are private businesses.

Whom did the media owners engage before imposing their austerity measures using what KEG called “unprofessional methods” such as sacking journalists by SMS?

By KEG’s own admission, some of the unfair labour practices media houses have imposed “in the long run will harm the practice of journalism in Kenya.”

Who are the media houses accountable to? Shareholders. Why should anyone else, other than the media owners themselves, call for state bailout?

KEG did not indicate in their statement that they have met media owners and tried to brainstorm on what the industry needs at this moment. To the owners, the question of survival is entirely a business one.

Have media owners taken pay cuts or are austerity measures only imposed on workers? How long will those measures last? What are the frameworks for a return to normalcy? Do the editors know?

Even without Covid-19, are the editors aware of how media houses treat journalists, especially correspondents who provide the bulk of news content? Have the editors ever spoken out for them? Why the selective concern?

How will the proposed state bailout benefit media workers?

Are the editors aware that long before the pandemic some media houses were already recording declining performance due to loss of credibility and partisanship?

Two weeks ago, former popular Kiswahili TV news anchor Mwanaisha Chidzuga circulated a letter she wrote to herself when she first lost her job back in 2015. She addressed it to media workers who have lost their jobs.

“Too attached to a company? Never again. As long as your name is not listed as a shareholder or amongst the owners of the company don’t be too comfortable. Use that platform (employment) to build yourself the same way you are so busy and committed in building another person’s company.”

Mwanaisha is doing her own things. She is not the only one. There is life after job loss.

As Macharia Gaitho says at the top of this piece, Covid-19 will end. The economy will recover. Media houses will need good people to drive recovery, but will find good people don’t need them anymore.

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