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Let’s stick to high road of independence, or public will doubt our pursuit of truth

The Saturday Nation headline, “The Martha Effect”, still does rounds on social media. It is accompanied by a full photo of the striding flamboyant Kirinyaga politician resplendent in a brown floral ankle-length dress.

The story appeared on May 27, 2022. Just ten days earlier, Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga had unveiled Martha Karua as his running mate in a televised address from KICC.

Kimathi Street wordsmith Julius Ochieng’ painted the portrait of a star emerging on the dark Kenyan horizon. “Raila Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua has excited sections of the population, especially the millions of Kenyan women and young girls who see her as the embodiment of a promise come true,” he wrote.

“Her selling points are threefold, according to those we talked to: her track record as a governance and human rights crusader, her stoicism on a campaign trail dominated by vile males, and the mark of gallantry and pluckiness that her candidature paints in the minds of women, especially young and middle-aged ones.”

Well, just over two months later in the August 9 elections, the alleged excited millions of Kenyans were nowhere at the ballot. Maybe things changed. A day is a long time in politics, they say. It is anyone’s guess why those claimed millions of Karua admirers never voted for her.

Karua’s fringe Narc Kenya party never won even an MCA. Her own polling station voted overwhelmingly for her opponent. The Daily Nation on August 10 reported that, “Deputy President William Ruto pulled an upset in Azimio la Umoja running mate Martha Karua’s own polling station by a clear win, with Karua only delivering less than a third of the votes.”

Was “The Martha Effect” a Kimathi Street tall tale? Largest media house in East and Central Africa serving its readers fiction?

In their critically acclaimed treatise, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media”, Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman posit that the media is rarely a disinterested conveyor of information about matters of public interest.

Media houses “serve the ends of a dominant elite”. Money and power decide the news, according to this school of thought. Content is designed to push a certain agenda.

Why does media “serve the ends of a dominant elite” yet it is mandated to only seek the truth and hold power to account?

Herein lies the biggest conundrum: Leading media houses are owned by the politicians they are supposed to hold to account, or their buddies. In a capitalist economy the political class controls the levers of business and therefore advertising, the main source of media revenue.

Journalists might sometimes come under intense pressure to push the political agendas of the media owners and allied politicians.

In November 2020, Anne Kiguta, news anchor and host of the current affairs show Punchline, quit K24 TV over “fundamental disagreements”. It was at the height of political controversies over a government drive to change the Constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative, and a bitter public fallout between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto over succession. The management at K24 TV, a station associated with the Kenyatta family, cancelled the invitation of Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro to Anne Kiguta’s show. Ndindi was not only a fiery opponent of BBI but also a close ally of Ruto. Kiguta quit in a huff on live TV.

On January 2, 2016, the Daily Nation carried an explosive editorial titled, “Mr President, get your act together this year.” The piece pointedly stated that President Uhuru Kenyatta had failed on his election promises three years into office.

The author, Sunday Nation managing editor Dennis Galava, was immediately suspended and later fired. His boss Tom Mshindi told a bewildered world that Galava was kicked in the teeth “because he did not follow procedure and process in filing an editorial.”

The media, of course, does more than its primary watchdog role. It gives politicians platforms to sell themselves to the public. On March 6, after Senate Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot attacked the media and banks as “cartels”, Kenya Editors Guild promptly shot back:

“It is dumbfounding that the senator sees the media as a cartel rather than a catalyst of Kenya’s democratic discourse, without which many politicians of his ilk would never have emerged to be anything worth quoting,” KEG president Churchill Otieno wrote.

Did Otieno let the cat out of the bag? The bitterly bemoaned Kenyan politician is, in fact, partly a creation of the media. Some politicos have been catapulted to mega-stardom – and others vilified into oblivion – by journalism. “The Martha Effect”.

Yet the media must be free and independent, always discharging its constitutional mandate without fear or favour.

See you next week!

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