Over 300 Kenyan journalists have lost their jobs in the past nine months, according to a report by the Kenya Editors Guild.
If the current situation persists, we will see a further decline in advertising revenues, prolonged pay cuts and more layoffs. Unless by sheer divine intervention or a complete turn of events, it is going to be a very painful 12 months for the Kenyan media industry.
This is why I want to make a case for why we must begin to think of journalism as a public good.
A public good is a commodity or service that is provided to all members of the society for its benefit. A public good is ‘non-excludable’, to mean that people who cannot afford to pay for it cannot and should not be prevented from accessing it.
A public good is ‘non-rivalrous’, to mean that if you read this article, it does not reduce its availability to others; it can be read simultaneously by more than one person. To put is simply, quality journalism, like the sun, should shine on both the rich and poor.
The democratic value of journalism in our society cannot be underscored enough. We need high-quality, investigative journalism to know what the powerful have been up to. Journalists play a very important role in advocating for the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society.
Societies with access to quality journalism are more likely to make more informed choices when it comes to voting and are more empowered to hold the authorities accountable.
There have seen several calls for the government to bail out the media, in the same way it has plans to bail out the tourism industry. There has also been a suggestion floated by professional bodies like the Kenyan Editors Guild to set up a Media Sustainability. Fund that will assist the media to produce quality journalism without the headache of reporting profits to shareholders.
If we are serious about these bail-outs and sustainability funds, then I think a good place to start would be an annual license fee as a way to fund the media.
Let us make it mandatory for anyone who consumes news either on TV, a phone, tablet or iPad to pay a fixed fee – or a subsided one, depending on social class – that will go towards a sustainability fund to allow our media to carry out their public watchdog role without pressures from advertisers, shareholders and especially politics.
We may even go further and make it a criminal offense to consume TV content without paying the annual license fee.
This is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) model that has worked for them for nearly 100 years since its inception in 1922.
Although recently the BBC has also been affected by budget cuts — most of them politically driven — this has proven to be a tried and tested business model for funding media and who knows, perhaps the only way out for Kenyan media.
The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are hers; [email protected]