The Kenyan media enjoy a special place in society because surveys have shown they are the most trusted institution in the country, with remarkably strong levels of public approval.
One such survey in 2014 found that 85 per cent of respondents had “some confidence” in the Press, while in the most recent poll published by Infotrak, the media were again rated as the most trusted institution in the country, with 64.7 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in the institution.
This is a virtually unique position that the Kenyan Press occupies.
By contrast, for example, the media are viewed with great scepticism in Britain, a country that supplied most of the early personnel that staffed Kenyan newsrooms in the early years of the industry.
According to a 2012 MORI survey, journalists were among the least trusted professionals in the UK, ranking at the bottom of the list alongside politicians and real estate agents.
There could be many explanations as to why Kenyans place so much trust in the media.
Unquestionably, the strong and principled stand taken by the Aga Khan and his early editors at the Nation in supporting the cause of nationalism; in offering a platform to progressive Kanu leaders such as Tom Mboya who were banned from the more conservative Standard newspaper and the gamble he took that Africans would in time enter the professional classes and provide a market for the Nation, all these factors helped to identify the media very strongly with the early nation building project.
Later in the 1980s, at a time when the big newspapers such as the Nation and Standard and the state-controlled Kenya Times pulled their punches, new courageous voices emerged to press for the expansion of the democratic space.
The Beyond magazine published by the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Nairobi Law Monthly, the Finance magazine and later, The People Weekly gave a platform to those who were fighting dictatorship.
Many journalists made deep sacrifices. Some were detained, others tortured and assaulted.
TRUST BETWEEN READERS AND EDITORS
A bond of trust over time developed between readers and editors, which may explain why Kenyan newspapers sell more copies than any of their peers in Africa outside South Africa.
A journalist friend speculates that another reason people came to trust the media was the inherent weakness in state institutions, which should ordinarily provide service to the people.
To this day, wananchi still report cases of lost children, fires or crime incidents to the newsroom first, in the hope that some action might be taken after publicity is generated while in other parts of the world, they would make their reports to the police.
It is well-known, of course, that the police in Kenya are consistently rated as the least trusted institution.
Yet we must ask some sharp questions as to whether journalists and the media deserve the high levels of trust the public has bestowed upon them and whether they are using that public confidence appropriately.
To those to whom much is given, much is expected. Is the media playing the agenda-setting role as expected at a time when the nation is going through a momentous period of transition with the implementation of the new Constitution?
Are there visionaries in the newsrooms today who are willing and able to shape the nation-building project as your peers did in the 1960s and other pivotal periods such as the late 1980s and early ‘90s?
How many editors and proprietors believe with the noted American journalist and author-philosopher Walter Lippmann that “there can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth” and how many of them heed warnings by a great scholar and American activist Noam Chomsky that the media should not be used for the “manufacture of consent” by self-interested elites?
How many journalists still live by the old dictum that their role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
Do the media today play a higher role than the mere generation of profits? In other words does the media put profits before the people?
Our Constitution is about changing a status quo that the country found unacceptable and unsustainable.
It has given us a vision for conducting a social democratic transformation of our country.
The media must take up the implementation of the Constitution as a fundamental pillar of its patriotic duty.
In doing so, it must make this issue its constant north. You must abandon your approach that is too obvious: Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds!
Pay close and focused attention on the integrity and leadership of the ruling elites in the country, the region, the continent and the world.
I agree with the great historian Eric Hobsbawm that “our world risks both explosion and implosion.
It must change.” There is no reason our media cannot be the leaders and teachers of the world.
Because of the 2010 Constitution, the dawn of issue-oriented politics is upon us.
The 2017 elections will definitely be fought on issues such as corruption, devolution and its pillar of equitable distribution of resources, security, basic needs for all people (education, food, environment, sanitation, housing, employment, clothing, health, and leisure) and the emerging financial battles between the national government and its county counterparts.
Issue- oriented politics will weaken the curse of divisive politics that has made it difficult to transform this country.
The rule of cartels (including those in the media) is an open secret.
What lacks is a national dialogue on how to combat them. History records four options: Give up and be enslaved; fight them until you win or lose; have a dialogue with them and draw ground rules on co-existence; engineer a war that none of them is left standing.
Take the lead in this debate. As you do so focus on the consequences of each of these options.
You must prioritise the national project of free, fair, and peaceful 2017 elections.
Pay special attention to the institutions that are critical to making sure this happens: The political parties, the IEBC, and the Judiciary.
It may be that now is the time to have a National Conference on this issue. I believe a national consensus is possible.
The Judiciary supports media freedom, ethics, and its sustainable development.
You are aware of the High Court’s decision on security laws.
I believe the Supreme Court’s decision on digital migration gave the national capital in the media its key position in sustainable development of this country.
It confirmed the critical aspects of the freedom of the press as decreed by Articles 10, 33, 34, and 35 of the Constitution.
The Judiciary is involved in some litigation with the media. We must have a robust dialogue on how to solve these issues.
As public servants, we expect to be defamed, but we are individuals who also run institutions whose integrity is critical to the stability of the country.
Dr Mutunga is the Kenyan Chief Justice and president of the Supreme Court. This is an edited version of remarks he made during the relaunch of The Star newspaper