Kenya’s mainstream media has got a lot of stick since the March elections.
It is being accused of having effectively jumped into bed with election cheats, and failing to be aggressive over the problems that plagued the controversial March election “for the sake of peace”.
Also, that it is sucking up and massaging the belly of the Jubilee government, because of opportunism, fear, and thinly disguised pro-government partisanship.
The recent event where editors had breakfast with President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, and some of them openly scouted for jobs, and others fawned over the UhuRuto pair brought on a flood of scorn from Kenyan blogs and social media.
While on the face of it, it might seem like the media and government are exchanging sleepovers, the reality is rather different and paints a more complex picture.
The Kenya media might be having a crisis, but it is not the one most external observers think it is. To understand what is happening today, one needs to step many years back. To begin with, there is something very unusual about Kenyan media that one needs to go to as far as South Africa in Africa to find — Kenya is the only country in the region with INDEPENDENT and PRIVATE newspapers that are older than 50 years.
The Standard newspaper, founded in 1902 as the African Standard, is the oldest continuously published independent newspaper in East and Central Africa. However, The Witness (previously The Natal Witness) in South Africa was founded in 1846. The Cape Times was born in 1876, while the top selling weekly The Sunday Times followed on the heels of The Standard here in 1906.
The Daily Nation was founded in 1960.
In the rest of East Africa, newspapers, even state-owned ones like the New Vision in Uganda, were born after regime changes or democratic transitions. All the newspapers on the streets of Uganda today were born after President Yoweri Museveni came to power as a victorious guerrilla leader in 1986.
The Daily News in Tanzania is a state-owned newspaper and has its history in 1930 when it was first published by the Kenya East African Standard. Its current incarnation, however, is a result of a merger that happened in the nationalisation wave of the 1960s.
However, nearly all the independent newspapers in Tanzania were born after one-party rule ended and the country adopted a multiparty system in 1992.
The point here is that it is very difficult for private and independent African newspapers to survive through many political eras, and it is particularly hard in East, Central, and West Africa — and nearly impossible in North Africa.
The real surprise to me then is that the Nation and The Standard have survived as private media through so many transitions; from colonialism to the modern multiparty-new-constitution era. It is very difficult for media to go through so many periods and still crusade for popular and populist causes.
In most of Africa, the progressive phase of media lasts about 10 years. After that, especially if they find commercial success, they become what is popularly referred to as Establishment media — they cease to aggressively challenge the political system, become vested in “stability”, and begin to worry about what will happen if the system breaks down.
In the period between 1990 and 2002, when the big battle against one-party rule and for multipartyism, and also for political reform happened, the Nation was seen as the leading media champion for those reforms.
That, however, was quite unusual because it was over 30 years old then. It had campaigned for independence, and was involved in a second equally spirited fight for multipartyism and reform. Ordinarily, rich as it already was then, it should have settled down to count its shillings, not take such risks.
The seeming capitulation and soft-pedalling we are seeing from mainstream media today, therefore, is a settling down in an Establishment mode that is many years overdue.
If one takes a long-term evolutionary view, that is a good thing. It is the only way new voices, new media, born out of the concerns of the age, can truly emerge. If you think of it, there is actually something undemocratic in the fact that the Nations have shaped Kenyan politics for nearly 55 years now, and The Standard for 101!
If they are taking a back seat, it might actually be a good thing and democrats should be glad.
That said, I strongly believe that it is too rash to say the timing has anything to do with the media’s alleged capitulation to the flirtations of the Uhuru-Ruto government.
After Mwai Kibaki became President at the end of 2002 at the head of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), the same situation akin to what we are seeing today happened. The media had been part of the pro-democracy crusade, and Kibaki’s election was also its triumph. Many of its allies in civil society became big men and women in the Narc government.
The pressure for the media to cash in its democracy activist chips was very high, as was the distraction of the seductions it faced from its former friends in civil society, who were now in government. Getting beyond that point was very difficult, and I am not sure the media quite succeeded.
But the biggest blow came in the very divisive election of December 2007, the controversy over Kibaki’s victory, and the post-election violence that followed.
The role that sections of the media played in fanning ethnic hatred, and framing the political contest in ways that made the post-election slaughter in which nearly 1,500 were killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes almost inevitable was disgraceful.
Then Kass FM’s Joshua arap Sang was fingered by The Hague charged with fanning murderous hate. That had another chilling effect.
These experiences shook most Kenyan journalists and shifted mainstream media toward a feeble safe middle position. But perhaps the most important factors that caused this change were not reported. In many parts of the country, the Nation had to pull out its bureau chiefs.
Generally, 2007 was very bad for journalists because at almost every rally, they were being attacked, and toward the end, there were many political rallies that some media couldn’t cover.
A group of NTV journalists was trapped in the Rift Valley when the post-election violence broke out, and were spirited out in a rescue operation at the last minute when death squads were closing in on them.
Most editors decided in 2013 that they would do all they could not to put their journalists in the kind of danger they faced in 2007/2008. None of them wanted to have the blood of hundreds of dead Kenyans on their doorstep again.
In several ways, they did succeed, because for all the grim reviews, very few journalists were chased out of political rallies in 2013, nor did bureau chiefs have to flee hostile regions. In that sense, some lessons were learnt, and correct responses taken.
However, all these developments came at a time when the country demanded a more aggressive reporting that most editors and media managers were not willing to offer.
The media could justify this to themselves, partly because there were other people doing it — there was no shortage of websites, blogs, and social media timelines in which the hot stuff that mainstream were too afraid to touch, was not aired or ventilated. The Kenyan blogosphere and social media became like a freewheeling mental asylum.
So while those who wanted the sharp attacks and naming and shaming of political scoundrels could not get it on mainstream media, they could find it in domainstream media.
The shrill Kenyan online space only pushed mainstream media higher up on the fence. My own sense is that if they had behaved as they did in 2007/2008, with the passions that were flowing on social media, if the mainstream media had not been timid, Kenya would again have gone up in smoke in March.
That movement to the middle represented the point at which the leading Kenya media finally became Establishment media. Even that is not yet settled by any means.
Today the Nation still gets stick from some people in the State for alleged “anti-government” reporting. While activists condemn the Nation of being soft, most of the criticisms it hears from government is that it is hostile.
Cartoonists like Gado have to contend with many angry attacks from officialdom. I am sure the good people at The Standard, The Citizen, The Star and so on will tell you the same story.
But that too will change, because the real cause of frustration should be that what happened in places like South Africa, Uganda, and Tanzania hasn’t happened in Kenya. The multiparty era, and the new Constitution period in Kenya, has failed to produce a new media for the age that reports without being weighed down by the baggage of history.
Old media like the Nation and The Standard have people who have “grown up” reading them; businesses that have developed long-running advertising relations with them; and these people will keep doing business with such media as long as they maintain a view of Kenya that is close to theirs.
This lucrative status quo is not something the mainstream are going to upset easily.
Kenya needs new newspapers that have greater freedom to go against the grain. Therefore, the crisis today is not that the main media are too comfortable and restrained. It is that Kenya has failed to produce a newspaper like The Monitor that arose in Uganda in 1992 — or even like the Weekly Review in 1975, Kenya’s first news magazine that broke the mould and challenged the post-independence settlement.
That is mainly a failure of Kenyan society, not just its media.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & digital media. Twitter:cobbo3.