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Will press freedom prevail in state media development fund?

With the current state of the media industry, after receiving a heavy beating during and post Covid-19, there are a lot of worries about media sustainability.

The media industry in Kenya through various stakeholders has been calling for government support through establishment of a media development fund.

Very few countries in Africa have ever established a media development fund. One that stands out is the Tanzania Media Development Fund, a project established with support of development partners and hosted by Hivos from 2008 to 2015.

Other countries like South Africa, Armenia, Canada and Georgie can boast of having media development fund but these are not supported by governments. These are operated as non-government institutions. The Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa and Ford Foundation partnered to establish a Community Media Development Fund.

The Kenyan media fraternity has been calling on the government for support by establishing a media development fund. While this fund will be set up with taxpayers’ money, there are many questions that arise. Nowhere in Africa has a government established a fund to support the media. One in Kenya, if successful, would be the first.

Kenya is still far from fully enjoying press freedom. A lot on censorship that goes on, some openly but most others subtly. It’s not strange to hear of a media house or individual journalist being profiled. Fear of losing a job because of naming and shaming has forced many good practising journalists to self-censor what would be otherwise hard hitting and powerful stories.

Will the media still be independent while being supported financially? An independent media is one that operates without influence of government. It’s one that enjoys editorial independence and freedom of expression.

Can a fund set up by taxpayers’ money allow for an independent media? Will press freedom prevail in such circumstances?

Will such a fund serve its purpose? Will the media receiving this fund be as objective as is expected?

Accountability and objectivity remain the cornerstones of good journalism. Sending out the request to a country that is yet to experience a totally free media, where the government has decided to give all its advertising to one single media, is a wish. 

In the African proverbs it is said that you cannot bite the hand that feeds you. Will the media be able to hold the government to account while receiving financial support from it?

Just a few months ago government gave all its advertising to one media house without blinking. The underlying currents indicate that this was the only media that indicated support for the current government during the election campaign.

Establishing a media development fund can be done in many other ways than relying on the government for support. Media industry stakeholders, while majority are journalists, should now start looking at other skills to support sustainability. They need to master how to write proposals and raise money. This they can do by looking for opportunities where there are calls for proposals and respond to them; interacting with development partners and other donors and requesting to have them put money in one single pot to support media.

The other way would be to have media stakeholders coming together for a conversation on how media sustainability can be enhanced in Kenya. This conversation is not for the editorial teams only. It should bring in marketing executives and advertisers as well as media owners amongst other key industry stakeholders. The industry in totality must look at ways in which it can salvage itself.

The underlying factor is that the economic independence of news media is an essential condition for press freedom. If the media does not have money to operate and has to basically rely on what can be termed as handouts, then that independence would also be taken away. Press freedom will be trampled on and it would no longer be business as usual.

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