Freedom of the media: But whose freedom is it really?

When the CKRC was debating the freedom of the media, I proposed that the freedom could be secured only if media owners did not own or control any other commercial enterprise. It was assumed that owners would provide accurate news and venues for discussion and debate arising from policies of the government and other institutions. I saw the media as strengthening discussions and debates on the basis of facts.

Independent media have long been regarded as an essential element of, and enriching, democracy. I was also impressed by the Swedish government giving grants to civil society groups to run newspapers and journals (my daughter worked in one of these for a while) — the emphasis being on information, analysis, and participation.

On the other hand, there was China, and no doubt several other communist states, where only the government could publish newspapers and magazines and run digital media.

China, incidentally, has recently restored many of these restrictions, especially with respect to digital media and broadcasts by foreign companies. In some countries, cross ownership of enterprises, where the media is concerned, is restricted to protect the independence of the media.

The risks are particularly acute in a country such as Kenya, where business and government are closely tied. Government does not hesitate to interfere in business, even if not openly, and there is a great deal of behind-the- scenes interaction and even corruption and the use of influence, which may easily persuade those who own the media to soft-pedal on any criticism of those who may grant them commercial failures.

For me, the most important elements in the media were the truth and honest debates — which could not be guaranteed even in a democracy if media were run by groups that had other commercial interests. There was a risk that news could largely focus on those who had political clout as well as on commercial interests. These are the groups who pay for advertisements — the main source of income for the media (while the threat of disbandment by the government is another consideration, particularly important in the Kenya type of regime not afraid to disregard the rights of others).

Let me first give you a brief idea of the ownership of the major newspapers. The Star is 65 per cent owned by Radio Africa, and then a number of minority shareholders, including Evans Kidero ( 15 per cent). The Daily Nation is listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange but the Aga Khan has 44 per cent shares. Other shareholders own small shares (the largest among them being Alpine Investments, with just over 10 per cent), leaving effective control of the paper to the Aga Khan. The Standard is owned by Daniel Moi, Gideon Moi, and Joshua Kulei and a handful of the business people from the 44th tribe. A small percentage of Standard shares is listed on the NSE. The People’s Daily is owned by MediaMax, which is itself controlled by the Kenyatta family. I have never seen any criticism of the terrible regime of Moi in the Standard or that of the Aga Khan by the Nation — though in the latter instance there probably is no cause for criticism.

Kenya’s papers are for the most part well and professionally produced. Major stories tend to cover politicians (who in practice have little to do with policymaking or holding the Executive accountable). The other major area is commerce, in its various dimensions. Advertisements are largely about products of the business world (addressed to the well off) and the affairs of the state. The social life of the rich and fashionable gets a great deal of attention.

There is little coverage of poverty, though now the poor comprise about half of Kenyans. There is little news about their numerous children who cannot get into a school. Nor about the difficulties of their existence in the slums (where the majority of the poor live). The hardships workers face getting to and from work are never discussed. There are stories of how the rich became richer but little of how the Kenyan system pushed the majority into poverty. Civil society, which plays a key role in the social and professional lives of many Kenyans and in the critical analysis of our politics and economy, gets little attention.

We had a good example of these tendencies last Sunday when the oldest non-governmental institution, Kenya Human Rights Commission, which had valiantly fought for human rights and struggled against the tyranny of Moi, supported numerous organisations and individuals to secure their rights, and is today the most effective NGO with a substantial agenda, held a party to celebrate its 25th anniversary. There was a large number of well-known personalities from different sectors of society. Among the events was the award to six persons of outstanding contribution to the country. It was a very significant event altogether. There were a large number of journalists. So, I expected front-page stories in all the major newspapers. Well, there was almost nothing — while trivial stories of politicians, ministers and officials (including, predictably, Miguna Miguna) as well as the business community covered page after page.

For me, the event, with the gathering of a significant diversity of Kenyans and their organisations, was very moving and exhilarating. The struggle of Kenya for real freedom was recounted. They were the heroes — colour and community did not matter. I felt that I was in the Kenya I wanted — and the Constitution ordained. Race, tribe, caste, and wealth were irrelevant. No one commented on the races of the recipients of the Kenya Human Rights Commission awards: They were Kenyans, and everyone rejoiced. No doubt the journalists, of whom there were a large number, understood the significance of the KHRC event, looking to the past and committing themselves in the future to the goals of the Constitution. But there was little in the papers. Their editors, representing their bosses, had other objectives, nothing to do with the realities of our country.

NATION COMMENTATORS RESIGN

My decision to write about the media was prompted by the resignation of eight of the most distinguished commentators of the Daily Nation papers: George Kegoro of the KHRC, active in civil society, the legal profession and public affairs; Muthoni Wanyeki, African Director, Open Society Foundation, former Director of KHRC and the Amnesty International African Section; Father Gabriel Dolan, Catholic missionary and active in affairs of the poor; Rasna Warah, author and formerly of UN staff; Maina Kiai, Director of InformAction, founder of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (not the NGO the KHRC), first Director of the KHRC and adviser to the UN; Gabriel Lynch, Professor of Comparative Politics at Warwick and leading Africanist; Professor Nic Cheesman, Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham, a leading scholar of African politics, particularly of Kenya, and Kwamchetsi Makokha, Programme Adviser, Journalists for Justice.

This is indeed a formidable team, highly influential, read with great interest. It is indeed to the credit of the Nation that it gave them the opportunity to express their views without restriction. Their resignation is not because of restrictions on their own freedom to write, but in a true spirit of openness and solidarity, because of restrictions on other contributors (including Cartoonist Gado), as they have said so clearly and fairly in their memo.

They say, “Freedom of the media is a public good, and private individuals and corporations profit from it on the understanding that their gain secures their independence. Media freedom acquires significance for democracy where public institutions are weak and under threat, and the Executive has little check, as has been observed in Kenya recently…”

Two years ago, they were perturbed by what they described “as a systematic process to constrain independent voices within the company, contrary to its stated editorial policy to promote diversity and freedom of the media” and at the “management’s failure or refusal to safeguard the operational independence of professionals in its employ”.

They then provided various examples of the restrictions on actions and in some cases dismissal of the some of the most senior and well-known of their staff “because of the discomfort….[they] were causing the Executive.

“Other, subsequent departures of senior editorial staff did little to assuage the moral dilemma we felt at our continued association with the NMG, whose respect for human rights and freedom of expression was then in question… We asked the company to change course.” The management seemed not to heed their advice.

Instead, they seemed to intensify dismissals. Particularly outstanding were the dismissal of Linus Kaikai, Chair of the Kenya Editors Guild, who had opposed censoring reports of Raila Odinga’s “swearing-in” as the People’s President, and of David Ndii, a distinguished economist, now active in politics.

The commentators considered that “The Executive and NMG’s actions suggest state capture of the media. Censoring individual columnists signals official intolerance for dissenting views, and suggests Executive willingness to go to any length — even co-opting editors — to achieve its aims. It is unacceptable that they should also be deciding who can have a voice in publicly accessed spaces. A media organisation that tacitly supports such a position alienates itself from the public.”

At this stage they resigned, refusing “to continue to clothe the loss of editorial independence and media freedom at the NMG with respectability”.

PEOPLE’S NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES

The commentators ended on a positive note. “Thankfully, public opinion is no longer in the sole grip of those who buy ink by the barrel. We are encouraged by the emergence of more egalitarian models for accessing and sharing information, and will not be powerless witnesses to the silencing of even one voice, however disagreeable those in power might find it.”-

I was cheered by this, as I have long been anxious for civil society to reach out to the people, to free them from the shackles of tribalism, violent acts imposed on them by politicians, and ignorance.

Newspapers are not the only way to reach the people, though a carefully crafted paper, based on issues that govern their lives would be welcomed. There are many ways in which to reach the people. There are, for example, numerous local radios that reach the people — and could start a discussion on matters of interest and relevance to them. We do face a problem that often several radio stations are owned by one businessperson, or TV stations are owned by the same people as own the newspaper (also a practice banned in some countries).

As an academic, I tend to think of books and articles — I am told this is outdated. I do believe well-designed booklets would be read. A way to reach the people will be through booklets on specific themes (like people’s power, the structure and responsibilities of governments, basic rights ensuring a life of dignity, equality (of women, minorities, marginalised, the persistence of corruption and the value of integrity) and a great deal more drawn from the Constitution.

People can be reached directly by visits outside Nairobi and Mombasa, and collaboration with locally based civil societies, which are other means that are likely to bear fruit. I was very impressed at the KHRC function how they reach out to people in remote parts of the country and ally with local NGOs. One reason for such a dialogue is to show the people how they really are sovereign as the Constitution stipulates, and what this entails. It is to discuss with them the mistake of bringing ethnicity into politics, thus preventing violence and promoting the prospects of Kenyans being one nation. Dialogue should also commence with trade unionists, students, women, unemployed, etc.

It would be critical to establish a newspaper or at least a weekly magazine that discusses political and social affairs from the perspectives of the people. Arrangements should be made to ensure its wide distribution, hoping that it would promote wide discussion among them. To facilitate this, the Swedish government might give us a subsidy! Perhaps, in the course of time, an enlightened government here will take over this responsibility.

Let me make clear that the Star has never, in any way, directed Katiba Institute as to the topics or tone of our weekly article. Nor do I imply that our professional media personnel are prejudiced or incompetent. The reverse is the case.

By YASH GHAI

Ghai is a director of Katiba Institute. He is grateful to Jill Cottrell Ghai for her assistance