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Good coverage on the budget but we can do more

The Finance Bill 2024 has got politicians’ tongues wagging and wananchi angered so much that the government MPs have found themselves saying this is just a proposal, that Kenyans have an opportunity to debate before it is adopted, in order to manage public anger.

What is interesting or maybe not so interesting is that we go through this cycle every year and we see interesting piece-to-camera interviews of journalists sharing sentiments from across the country, but nothing seems to change. If anything, the last couple of years we’ve seen the Finance Bill sail through the House despite the majority Kenyans asking their MPs to reject or amend issues critical to them.

If this trajectory indicates anything, then this year will be no different. So, what are we doing wrong? Or better yet, what should journalists be focusing on?

The International Journalists Network gives the following three tips from International Budget Policy on the media’s role in strengthening budget accountability. One, is to provide the public with the government budget information in widely accessible formats and language. Two, is encouraging dialogue – interviewing experts, government honchos or mama mboga – to get alternative views. And, lastly, holding the government accountable. According to IBP, by keeping a critical eye on public finance management, the media plays an invaluable oversight role and provides an important source of external pressure on government to use public resources effectively and efficiently to meet the public’s needs.

In our assessment, the Kenyan media has done fairly well in the first two roles. That Kenyans and their leaders are having this debate is because they have been able to access the information on the budget whether via traditional or digital media and have encouraged this dialogue every year. However, we believe the media hasn’t done a very good job in holding the government accountable.

Accountability here means involving the public. To achieve this, the media must engage the public throughout the budget cycle, helping them understand the cycle and the opportunities for public participation at each stage.

We believe that the reason the Finance Bill elicits strong emotions from the public and still easily passes is because the public hardly knows what they are opposing beyond the increase in taxes. Furthermore, government leaders feel pressured to support the bill because they view it as necessary to fund the government. If the media invests enough resources in covering the entire budget cycle, especially in the early stages, it will allow for more creative ways of generating revenue beyond income tax.

For example, consider the stage where ministries present their budget estimates to the Treasury. If the media highlights these moments, different sectors of the public would be interested in engaging meaningfully with their respective sectors. Therefore, those in the hospitality industry would pay attention to the budget estimates presented by the Ministry of Tourism.

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner. What targets are set, and how realistic are they? Suppose the public is involved in these early stages. In that case, the conversation becomes less frustrating when we reach the stage of debating the bill, and the government cannot hide behind technical terms because they were held accountable throughout the budget cycle.

If the media polishes up on this, we’ll have less blame games and more constructive conversations when debating the finance bills.

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