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Days of journalism as commodity are gone, find options instead of scapegoats

Edward Kisiangani has annoyed a lot of people across town. All the way from Kilimani to Kijabe Street, from Kimathi Street down to Mombasa Road, people are bristling with rage against the man who has become the face and voice of a bitterly contested government policy.

On March 12, The Standard carried an editorial headlined, “Journalism will thrive despite media attacks”. The editors said, “Media enterprises have gone down after governments twisted regulatory rules or, like in Kenya today, denied the sector advertising to run them out of town.”

The next day, NTV named Broadcasting and Telecommunications PS Kisiangani as the “enemy of the media”. That was the day the Kenya Media Sector Working Group led by Kenya Editors Guild and Kenya Union of Journalists roundly condemned the PS.

Kisa na maana? On March 8, Kisiangani directed all government institutions to exclusively air their TV and radio advertisements on KBC. The policy is meant to cut government costs on advertising and revamp the moribund public broadcaster.

“This directive is a deliberate attempt to stifle dissenting voices, control the public narrative, and ultimately weaken the democratic fabric of the nation,” KMSWG protested.

KEG president Zubeida Kananu said, “The state campaign has far-reaching consequences beyond silencing dissent. They represent a devastating blow to Kenya’s independent media, already grappling with a decline in traditional revenue streams due to the rise of digital platforms.”

This war started in January after The Star won a tender to exclusively print and distribute the government weekly, MyGov. When some private media houses grumbled that the deal denied them good moola from state coffers, Kisiangani told them, in the words of the Observer Resident Wag, kasikie vibaya huko kwenu. Gava had picked the lowest bidder in an open tender, the PS said. The matter is pending in court.

There is a widespread belief among private media that Gava has an obligation to support it through advertising. Citizen TV news anchor Lilian Muli brought up this issue in an interview with ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo on January 6. The CS denied Gava was using advertising to muzzle the media.

“I want the media to run away from this notion that it is the responsibility of the government to finance operations of the media by way of advertising revenue,” he said. “It’s not the business of government to finance the private sector. The role of government is to ensure that we have got an enabling policy, legal and regulatory framework for the private sector to thrive.”

At the KMSWG presser, KEG president Kananu said, “Government advertising has been an important enabler of media diversity, encouraging a multiplicity of investors to provide alternative media especially at community and devolved levels.”

True. But does this mean Gava has an obligation to advertise in private media? One, you cannot dictate to an advertiser where to spend his money. Two, state advertising has supported mostly big media. Historically, all other media investors have relied on their business wits to survive and thrive. And three, county governments are still free to advertise in private media.

But here’s the elephant in the room, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press. Commenting on the mediascape in the United States where major newspapers have cut staff and operations due to diminishing revenues, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, Victor Pickard, makes the now-uncontestable point that “the advertising model for supporting journalism is no longer viable.”

More bad news: “In many ways, what we’re seeing are the continuing death throes of an industry that’s reached a point of no return.” To Pickard, “it’s so clear that there simply is not a commercial future for many kinds of journalism.”

“So, we have to start thinking outside of the market, and really pushing for a paradigm shift, when we see journalism as not just a commodity whose worth is determined by its profitability on the market, but rather as a public service upon which democracy depends.”

Traditional media empires are crumbling. They simply can’t win the competition for audiences with the teeming multitudes of content creators and global tech giants. The Digital Revolution has swept up all audiences, causing a stampede of advertisers from traditional to social media.

Obviously, Gava is aware of the potential of its own media and the competitive options available in the digital era. Can you fault Gava for choosing the better option? To keep punching Kisiangani is to live in denial.

See you next week!

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