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Hear, ye scribes, we need media leaders who can restore courage to newsrooms

The Intercept’ is never shy about its job. The American online publication describes itself as “an award-winning nonprofit news organisation dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism.”

One of The Intercept’s recent investigations is about the killing of Luul Dahir Mohammed, 22, and her four-year-old daughter, Mariam, by a US military drone in central Somalia.

The publication grabbed a secret Pentagon investigation that acknowledged Luul and her child were killed in the 2018 attack but absolved the military.

This is a story about missed connections, flawed intelligence, and fatal blindness, about Americans misreading what they saw and obliterating civilians they didn’t intend to kill but didn’t care enough to save,” ‘The Intercept’ thundered.

Maria Ressa sits on the board of ‘The Intercept’. She is the co-founder and CEO of ‘Rappler’, the Philippines’s leading investigative news site. In 2021, Maria Ressa and veteran Russian newspaperman Dmitry Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Celebrating Ressa and Muratov, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press, the only reason all democratic constitutions in the world uphold media independence and freedom is because the only way to hold the powerful accountable is through “fearless, adversarial journalism.”

And that kind of journalism is always dangerous work. It requires something no one will ever teach journalism students in a classroom: Courage. This basic value is not available in the list of courses offered for a degree or diploma.

The Constitution of Kenya – or any other in the world – does not offer journalists ironclad protections so that they can faithfully reproduce a press release written by a communications officer sipping coffee in a swivel chair in a cozy air-conditioned government or corporate office.

Journalists are not protected by the Supreme Law so that they can chat up a former Mungiki boss with innocent blood on his hands in a live studio interview.

The Constitution protects journalists so that they can go to any lengths possible to dig up the truth. The Constitution thus seals every journalist with the mark of courage on his or her forehead. Only the truth matters.

The veteran journalist Joseph Odindo puts it this way: “Power hates scrutiny. Many of those who rule us will pay any price to be rid of critical voices and the news platforms that amplify them” (Foreword, ‘Hounded: African Journalists in Exile’).

By “scrutiny”, does Odindo have in mind press conferences and staged events where journalists are spoon-fed by honey-tongued political partisans and other suave influence peddlers? Does “scrutiny” of power mean writing an entire story out of a politician’s single tweet? Or recitation of official narratives and unverified claims in the airwaves?

If the country’s biggest problem is corruption, with repeated calls to declare the vice a national disaster, then your national duty is to join the war against its eradication.

Yet the “scandals” you see in the headlines are usually not original media investigations but reports of investigative agencies and watchdogs such as the DCI, NCIC, EACC, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Auditor General, Controller of Budget and committees of Parliament and county assemblies.

What this means is that media houses are not investing much in independent investigations. They wait for government agencies to produce reports so they can write news from them.

Why, then, does the Constitution grant the media freedom and independence? The media has a watchdog duty even over those government agencies and institutions whose reports it often reproduces under screaming headlines. The Fourth Estate is supposed to independently investigate those issues and interrogate the official reports, not merely parrot them.

The Intercept’ tells the world’s only superpower that, ‘You’re murdering innocent people in distant places with your drones.’

The more serious the political and socio-economic challenges a nation faces, the more crusading and unrelenting its journalism must be in speaking truth to power in defense of the public interest. You can’t wait for easier times to do great journalism.

Let’s hear Odindo, again: “Throughout Africa, the right to publish — like political power — has to be grabbed; it cannot be exercised solely on politicians’ goodwill or the strength of a Constitution. Thus, good journalism demands more than an ability to cultivate news sources and generate content. It requires courage.”

See you next week!

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