Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States who served between 1801 and 1809, famously said that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
More than two centuries later, the quote remains an apt expression of the role of the media.
However, it is worth noting that media landscape had changed, with far-reaching implications on the idea of liberal democracy.
Although the quote is often used to underscore the importance of press freedom and its role in governance, there are concerns that the new media may undermine press freedom and subvert democracy.
Jefferson noted this risk in his letter to Edward Carrington, whom he had sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress on the importance of a free press and how it can keep government in check.
In the letter he said, “I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Such was the strength of his conviction about the importance of the press that Jefferson never envisaged that the nature of new media could complicate his view in the future.
If receiving and being able to read the newspapers seemed farfetched, try making sense out of new media.
News is no longer news. By the time a newspaper publishes a story, the same story will probably have morphed into many variants depending on the views of the recipients, who are now fast becoming news outlet.
The volume, veracity, velocity, variety and value (referred to as 5Vs of Big data) of such media dictate that you employ a data scientist to decipher the true situation of a news item.
In last Saturday’s Madaraka Day ceremonies, two Governors complained that they had been accused of corruption. By the time newspapers published the story, social media had completely distorted it and the principal message was lost.
The people who are supposed to hold their governments to account became cheerleaders. Then followed edited WhatsApp messages and other social media platforms that feed hapless citizens with distorted information. The result is that many citizens see no reason to read the newspaper version.
Effectively, citizens have taken to cheering the suppression of the only safeguard of public liberty – free press – that is supposed to ensure that public resources are channelled to their public benefit.
I have spent some time thinking about this emerging behaviour pattern and the risk it poses to democratic governance but I haven’t found a simple solution.
Many slum dwellers are desperate. Some are very sick but they cannot see a doctor for lack of transport. Some have gone for three days without food. Many are unemployed, idle and without hope. Young women get children out of desperation. Their occasional saviours have been politicians who by and large have resources from unexplained sources to mollify the electorate.
During the last Madaraka Day celebrations in Nairobi, women cheered as a woman leader walked out of the meeting in protest. They perhaps had no clue of the nuances of their own act and what it will do to women’s liberation.
Maybe they did not know either that those they cheered lacked a leadership philosophy - the lenses through which we can examine their priorities, values, and approach to decision-making that is so critical to changing the same lives that were undermining free speech.
From this behavioural pattern, it is clear that the antics of the current leadership, especially in the counties in question, are working.
Chances of such leadership styles creeping into national politics are now greater than 50 percent. We should never wait to ask ourselves where we were when democratic liberties were being destroyed.
Newspapers still have the power to give the correct account, break it into “one-liners” for social media to consume. No matter how social media or partisan journalism makes noise, nothing beats well balanced investigative journalism.
Free press is an important cog to building a sustainable democracy. In spite of many disruptive media outlets that distort the truth, there are still media strategies to penetrate masses of people with full information of their rights and how governments are trampling on them.
Such media should inform the electorate that the handouts they receive are indeed their own resources they should never beg to receive, and that leaders who lack personal leadership philosophy will never rescue them from their misery.
We must work towards freeing our people from the bondage of dependence before it becomes a culture that could easily ruin our democratic development.
Ronald Reagan stated. “The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy - the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities - which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
We each have a responsibility to shape the future of our democracy. Money could destroy all of our democratic gains if we do not get on to the ground to reverse the emerging trend by ensuring universal health works, creating jobs for the youths and above all developing political parties that have a unifying ideology.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.@bantigito