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Pay journalists well to protect media freedom and integrity

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi aliongea kama wazee kumi last week. He was the chief guest at a celebration organized by the Media Council of Kenya to mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

MCK has done an excellent job of leveraging the global celebration every year to build public consciousness about the media and its critical role in society, thereby advancing democracy in Kenya.

Speaking at the event in Nairobi, Muturi revealed a dirty little secret in Kenyan media. Poorly paid journalists are easily compromised by their sources and other powerful forces. Who pays the piper calls the tune. That leaves the media tied to the apron strings of individuals and institutions through bribery and other forms of corruption.

“Today is my day to ask media owners to pay our children, reporters and correspondents, very well; pay them well first and then demand integrity, otherwise we risk making them captives of government and news sources,” Muturi said.

That was candid. Speaker Muturi spoke truth to power; for the media, too, exercises public power.

Former TV presenter Wakarura Manyara has vowed never to return to the media after frustrations by her employer. Popular for her family shows at a vernacular station, Wakarura said in a YouTube interview she would wake up at 3am and be in the office by 5am to work. Neither her health nor family mattered. But she went for close to a year without pay.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year, many media owners did not think twice about sacking journalists or slashing their pay. Radio Africa reporters say they have not been paid for months.

Hardly a month passes without journalists migrating from one media house to another – or abandoning the profession altogether – in search of greener pastures.

People will always move. That is normal labour dynamics. But the media runs the risk of having only greenhorns and third-rate scribes stuck in the newsrooms as seasoned men and women of the craft flee.

The Observer and other news consumers often bemoan the quality of journalism in Kenya. There are hardly any big stories from the counties, for example. Reporters are busy chasing MCAs, governors and other politicians every day. No investigations. Scribes have turned themselves into an extension of county communications departments for survival.

In newsrooms, stories are paid for. Word on the street is that some politicians pay to appear on TV and radio talk shows or to be quoted in news stories. Or for their pictures to be used.

Nation Media Group CEO Stephen Gitagama is the new chairman of the Media Owners Association. “I will champion press freedom as a condition for democracy and development in our country. We aim to have economically independent media institutions that will transform to the new digital media world. Using our various media platforms, we will champion peace and unity,” he said upon taking office.

Good to hear. Championing press freedom as a condition for democracy and development, Bwana Gitagama, must include improving the welfare of journalists.

Radio Africa Group digital editor Oliver Mathenge put it this way last week: “Newsrooms must invest heavily in content that is consumer-first. This means the media must attract and retain the best talent and ensure journalists’ welfare is taken care of”. Kabsa!

See you next week.

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