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Do not wait for media to die to know their value; bail them out

Friday July 03 2020
media

The press cover a past event in Mombasa. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MUTUMA MATHIU

This is one of the most depressing weeks of my life. It also happens to be one of the worst seasons for the Press in Kenya, capping eight years of political and state hostility, repression and technological upheaval.

Nearly every sector of the economy requires a bailout. From flower farmers to artists, every enterprise in the country could use a little leg-up to weather the economic devastation wrought by a disease whose worst effects are still in the future. Most sectors have, or will get, help from the taxpayer.

EXCEPT THE MEDIA

I wonder what the key performance indicators (KPIs) are for the government officials who are charged with managing the media and communications sector. What are they measured by? The number of jobs lost? The number of billions lost? Are they required to show growth, success?

As I write this, my department has just lost jobs. It is a special kind of hell, having to sit down with people you have known all your life — people you have trusted and who have, in turn, trusted you, whose families you know — and look them in the eye and tell them that you can no longer afford to keep them.

And for each one of them, you know it is another family plunged into the abyss of economic chaos, uncertainty and the ever-present risk of poverty, all this in the context of a virulent disease.

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There are many things I don’t know but I fancy myself an expert, from training and experience, in my field.

If the trajectory of media losses is sustained, a number of things are going to happen. First, there is a very high risk of continued contraction, job losses, financial losses to investors and generally the loss of institutional media.

Institutional media meaning large corporations with the muscle to marshal expertise, technology and the capital to achieve world-class standards and high levels of competition. That’s how countries develop.

CULTURAL INFLUENCE

Secondly, looking at the long-term arch, our society will lose cultural influence.

Media, in all their forms, are purveyors of broad cultural influence, related to my point number three below, the fist, to use an inappropriate image, of soft power. Societies become competitive in the global marketplace because of their ability to influence other cultures.

Thirdly, our society will have weaker — I’m making up this term — organised internal cultural effectiveness.

National character is moulded by popular culture. It’s reflected, entrenched and maintained in newspapers, movies, magazines, plays, novels and so on. A nation is fused and knit by the image that it has of itself.

We believe we are enterprising because that is the view confirmed in common discourse. We’re a nation not just because of accidents of geography and history, but because of what else we share: A common character, values.

Fourthly, I know there are many people who believe that Kenyans are best mobilised by the butt of an AK-47 assault rifle, or the large-calibre bullet out of its muzzle. But really, the most efficient means of causing large-scale behaviour change is by initiating national conversations in the mass media.

You would need a lot of AK-47s and thousands of cracked skulls to achieve the same results as a simple message: “Wear a mask, save lives” or “Whom are you staying home for?”. If your territory is invaded, your humble tabloid will fire up the patriotism of your youth and get them to take up arms more enthusiastically than a national draft.

DEMOCRATIC PENALTY

Fifth, the collapse of organised media will exact a severe democratic penalty. The media are the people’s watchdog, sniffing out failures by the government to live up to its contract to the people. Mid-wifing the demise of the media does not mean that there is no wrongdoing going on; it’s just like halting the testing for Covid-19. Still there, still killing you, but you have chosen to rob yourself of the capacity to fight by closing your eyes and ears and sticking your head in the sand.

A society that loses its ability to police, control, remove and install governments is a foolish, dying society. Our belief in the witchcraft of tribe has rendered us such a society.

Finally, general education, giving people facts and truths about their world, is one of the most important functions of the media. It’s also the first to suffer the effects of economic hardship because good, factual writing costs a lot more money to put together than celebrity and political fluff.

There are many people, especially young people, in our land who exist in a state of social media-induced coma. They have stuck a pipe of filth in their brains and, all day, they are receptacles of the most damaging, unregulated and perverted garbage.

Serious content — such as books, or a good documentary — not only gives us facts; it also trains us in how to think, seek, process and apply information in decision-making and problem-solving. Social media is largely like a drug; it tickles our worst parts and leaves us with a permanent hangover.

But don’t take my word on it: If you thought institutional media were “bad”, wait till the bloggers take over.

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