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Media is on the ballot on August 9, here’s Achilles heel it must beware of

It is the season of opinion polls. So, what are the numbers for the Fourth Estate, seven short weeks to the “much-awaited” August 9 General Election? What’s the level of public trust in the media?

Quite high. The Reuters Digital News Report 2022 released last week gives The Nairobian gossip sheet the lowest brand trust at 57 per cent and KTN News the highest at 85 per cent.

The top 10 most trusted news brands include Daily Nation (85), NTV (84), The Standard (82), Citizen TV (82), Business Daily (80), Citizen Radio (78), Radio Jambo (77), K2 TV (76) and Radio Maisha (76).

If the least trusted media brand scores 57 per cent (The Nairobian), just behind The Star daily (68), we are good. Makofi! We should whistle our favourite tunes all the way to town for a drink and a bite, confident that Kenya’s Fourth Estate enjoys overwhelming public trust.

But the Media Council of Kenya State of the Media Report 2021 found only 23 per cent of survey respondents had “a lot of trust” in the media, down from 48 per cent in 2019. That is more than 100 per cent decline in public trust. Those who had “some trust” were 53 per cent.

Make of those figures what you will. But the Reuters study offers interesting insights. Veteran Kenyan journalist (former editor-in-chief at The Star) and director of the African Women Journalism Project Catherine Gicheru writes in the report that,

“Kenyan media are still considered to be relatively independent by regional standards, but press freedom has been deteriorating since 2017 when the government started using its advertising budgets to compel news organisations to toe the line”.

Underline Gicheru’s outstanding qualification. Kenya’s media is considered relatively independent “by regional standards”. That says something.

If you are only better than Museveni’s Uganda, Kagame’s Rwanda and Suluhu’s Tanzania, or Somalia, you have an awful lot to be proud of, don’t you?

Well, overzealous state apparatchiks don’t switch off TV and radio stations on a whim around here, shut down newspapers, detain pesky reporters, clobber scribes on assignment to pulp, or chase critical journalists into exile. Kenya doesn’t have a single journalist in jail for doing his or her job. Or reporters’ rotting bodies floating in the Tana.

Media repression here is far subtle, chini ya maji. Everyone wants to pretend they uphold, protect and defend the ironclad constitutional guarantees of media freedom and free speech. But:

“A culture of self-censorship, brought about by deteriorating media business combined with a regulatory environment that allows politicians to own and control media, blunts its autonomy,” Gicheru writes. Powerful. That is really a damning indictment, isn’t it? It erodes any shred of claimed media independence in Kenya.

The conclusion is indisputable. High profile journalists have been kicked out of newsrooms, or forced to quit, under politically instigated pressures. You remember how news anchor Anne Kiguta resigned live on K24TV?

Newspaper columns have been pulled down and news executives summoned by powerful honchos to be lectured on how to do journalism.

In this electioneering period, the media has been accused of bias. If we keep in mind Gicheru’s three points – 1) state use of advertising to dictate content, 2) declining media business, and 3) media ownership by politicians – it is not rocket science to see why biased coverage easily happens.

Media scholar and Standard columnist Dr Michael Ndonye of Kabarak University echoes Media Council of Kenya CEO David Omwoyo’s call that “the media must take the allegations of biased and skewed coverage of the candidates seriously”.

Ndonye advises that the Kenya Editors Guild and the Media Owners Association “must pronounce themselves on the matter because they [will be] the most affected should society shun mainstream media”.

“Therefore, the Fourth Estate can decide to either listen to politicians or listen to the inner voice that tells them that the August elections will come and go,” Ndonye writes.

At a memorial lecture in honour of veteran journalist Philip Ochieng’ last week, anti-corruption crusader and publisher of the online newsmagazine, The Elephant, John Githongo, spoke about the powerful forces forever striving to control Kenyan media.

“The editor must remain in control of the content he or she publishes. They must not allow arm-twisting and influence by the rich and powerful with interests to take care of,” he said.

Kenyans are watching. The media is on the ballot on August 9.

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