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What’s independent journalism? Doesn’t matter who says what, find out if it’s true

An article in the respected journal, Review of African Political Economy, published online on May 24, caught our attention.

ROAPE has since 1974 “provided radical analysis of trends, issues and social processes in Africa, adopting a broadly materialist interpretation of change.” The Marxist groundings of the publication have over the decades drawn leftist ideologues in droves, including many journalists.

The piece that hit our eye was titled, “Raiding wages: Kenya’s proposed housing levy”. The government’s proposed 3% cut on salaries to raise funds for a national housing project has been the subject of emotive nationwide debate for weeks.

Often, truth falls casualty. Almost anything in Kenya becomes a political football, without a care about the facts. The media, which is supposed to sift the wheat from the chaff, is sometimes unhelpful. Whenever the big story breaks, the Fourth Estate degenerates into a cacophonous platform for political grandstanding, mudslinging, obfuscation, and bonga-point scoring, instead of being society’s ultimate dispassionate gatekeeper for public information and truth telling.

The ROAPE article is written by two eminent Kenyan academics, Ambreena Manji and Jill Cottrell Ghai. Ambreena is Professor of Land Law and Development at Cardiff School of Law and Politics. In January, she was appointed the university’s new Dean of International for Africa.

Cottrell Ghai is a veteran academic who has taught law at universities in Nigeria, the UK and Hong Kong for over 40 years. Both Ambreena and Contrell write or are quoted by Kenyan media.

In their article, the two professors review the pros and cons of the housing levy at length. So, what is their take? Despite its positive aspects, the proposal has “met with widespread consternation,” which is true.

Then the law professors write that: “According to the 2022 Kenya Economic Survey, there were 2,907,300 employed in the formal sector and an annual rate of affordable home construction by the national government of around 500 units a year. It is not clear under the Constitution that the national government has this responsibility, as opposed to the devolved government at county level.”

Ambreena and Contrell aren’t sure the national government has a duty under the Constitution to provide affordable housing, right?

Article 43 stipulates that everyone has a right to “accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.”

The Fourth Schedule of the Constitution lists Housing Policy (at number 20) as one of the functions of the national government. Function 8 of the county governments under the same schedule (County Planning and Development) includes “Housing” (D).

Is there any reason the national and county governments cannot do affordable housing, either jointly or separately? It already happens in other functions, like health, that are undertaken by both levels of government.

One of the sources Ambreena and Contrell cite for their arguments is Steve Biko Wafula, who writes that, “The [housing] fund would be administered by a board appointed by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure, Housing, and Urban Development, with little oversight or accountability from other institutions.”

How is that? What stops Parliament, Auditor General, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, or any of the state watchdog institutions from oversighting the housing fund? Wafula doesn’t explain. Nor do the two professors, who quote him approvingly, see any problem with this assertion.

Authority figures like professors, politicians, analysts, religious leaders, medical workers and others dominate media content. They are the experts. They know better than the rest of us. They are often quoted without question.

Yet journalism demands skepticism. Anyone can mislead, either intentionally or unwittingly.

As news professionals, it is our first duty to the citizens to test every claim for facts, no matter the title, designation, social standing, wealth, or power of the person making the allegation.

Alas, we are too quick to trumpet allegations made by politicians and other authority figures without any attempt to find out the truth of what’s alleged. We have abandoned our gatekeeping role.

Folks, we live in a society where people use the privilege of “authority” to make others starve to death in a grotesque quest to “meet Jesus”. Such gullibility, nay mindless subservience to authority, is primarily inculcated in people’s hearts and minds by influential cultural institutions such as schools and churches/mosques. And, of course, the media.

If two veteran legal scholars of international repute writing in a respected journal can make confusing statements about a major public issue, whether by sleight of hand or unintentionally, what about politicians and other newsmakers?

Question everything.

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