Monday, November 4, 2013

By abdicating its watchdog role, the media paved way for regressive law

A journalist covering a news event in Nakuru on November 2, 2013, as parliament and media stakeholders iron out sections of the controversial media bill. While I am appalled by the fact that legislators passed a law that would in effect gag journalists and run most media houses out of business, I am surprised that local media houses did not see this coming. PHOTO/

A journalist covering a news event in Nakuru on November 2, 2013. Investigative journalism goes beyond the normal coverage of news events such as press conferences, meetings and other staged events. PHOTO/FILE 

By RASNA WARAH
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While I am appalled by the fact that legislators passed a law that would in effect gag journalists and run most media houses out of business, I am surprised that local media houses did not see this coming.

After all, the media has allowed itself to be censored since at least the 2013 elections.

This law is just the final nail in the coffin of a media that decided “not to disturb the peace” during the last elections, even if it meant under-reporting electoral malpractices and disturbances.

For instance, when gangs ambushed and killed police officers and attacked a polling station at the coast on the morning of election day, the story was barely reported in the local press.

And when the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission announced a technical glitch in the newly-acquired biometric voter registration system, virtually no media house thought of investigating the cause of the malfunction, or its implications on the election results.

Henry Makori, an editor with Pambazuka News, called the local coverage of the election “helicopter journalism” whereby journalists hopped from one polling station to another without staying long enough to get the back story.

At that time, the Media Owners Association defended the media’s propensity not to report disturbing news by stating that the media did not want to fuel violence, as it had after the 2007 election.

The media’s “professional surrender” was also displayed during the coverage of the Westgate mall terror attack.

KDF VERSION

Until KTN did an expose of the real goings-on within the mall, most media houses were happy to accept the Kenya Defence Forces’ version of the story.

Important questions, such as who the terrorists were, how many had been killed, and why it took so long to corner them were left mostly unanswered and un-investigated.

The owners of Nakumatt are still waiting to find out who burnt the mattresses in their supermarket during the raid.

Other burning questions (pardon the pun), such as how KDF managed to secure and count Sh300 million from various facilities in the mall have not been investigated. Nor do we know if this money has been returned to the rightful owners.

No journalist has asked: “If KDF soldiers are capable of behaving badly in Westgate, might they also be behaving badly in Somalia?”

On the contrary, there have been calls to strengthen the country’s military presence in Somalia.

When media houses decided to abdicate their role as watchdogs, they paved the way for the kind of legislation that now threatens their very existence.

BACK 50 YEARS

Media owners and practitioners are now arguing that this media law will set the country back 50 years.

They are now worried that the media law, if assented to by the president, will be a throwback to the Moi years.

It has finally dawned on them how analogue this “digital” government is.

One does wonder whether the media was co-opted by the state through the charm offensive by Uhuru Kenyatta government’s well-oiled public relations campaign.

At what point did ethnic and corporate interests merge with those of the government? Were some journalists compromised?

These are questions that the Media Council, media owners and editors should have been asking, but didn’t.

Why are they now shocked by legislators’ intentions to capture and gag the media completely?

It is ironic that legislators are now calling for a media regulatory body, which by the way, is also stipulated in the new Constitution.

There is definitely a need for regulation, but not for the reasons the legislators demanded – which is to make sure nothing that shows the government in a bad light is ever reported.

The Kenyan media needs to be regulated because a lot of what passes off as journalism today is just a mixture of propaganda and entertainment.

It would a good idea to set and enforce standards for journalism in this country.

Issues such as biased reporting, bribe-taking, plagiarism and sloppy fact-checking, should be taken more seriously.

These, however, are issues that should be handled by a body that is independent of government, commercial and political interests, as stipulated in Article 34 of the Constitution.

rasna.warah@gmail.com

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