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Government must seek better ways to control the media

Monday December 22 2008

By ANGEYO H. KALAMBUKA

Among the most fervent of declarations about democracy are public testaments to the need for freedom of the Press, and no one pronounces these with more passion than the Press itself.

In the unrelenting rhetoric comes the message: the democratic process is founded on the rock of free and independent newspapers.

Whatever its shortcomings, the Kenyan newspaper is almost a branch of public administration. It is the most important single instrument of information in a society peculiarly dependent on public knowledge and public opinion.

For its own future and the national good, it needs to be as free as possible, and it needs to assure increasingly doubting readers that it is free.

You would imagine that there has been little evidence of creating some method of public accountability for the Press, and so Government has to step in.

No, they reason like the journalist, Ambrose Bierce, who, referring to newspapers, warned: “... are sycophants to the mob, tyrants to the individual, which had assumed ‘rights’ to which they weren’t entitled for the purpose of controlling public opinion for their own purposes.

As such they did compose a separate ‘estate’ which, by controlling all present forms of communication, could become a dictatorial force in itself”.

To Bierce, the Press “constitute(d) a menace to organised society — a peril to government of any kind; and if ever in America, Anarchy shall beg to introduce his dear friend Despotism we shall have to thank our vaunted “freedom of the press.”

That was long before 1960, when the New Yorker press critic A. J. Liebling coined the dictum “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

When Liebling cast his famous pearl, he was worried that the chains would buy up papers across the country, eviscerate distinctiveness, and crank out high-profit, low-journalism baloney.

Sure, the Press has been vigorous about pointing to conflict of interest among politicians. But they have been silent on conflict of interest in journalism.

And at certain moments, there has been depressing demonstration on how not to operate a free Press in a free society, when the Press has come nearer to licentiousness than to good journalism. But such instances are few.

Such are the serious difficulties that surround notions of free Press in today’s information age. Yet authorities seem to summarily imply that the media has hitherto been free from censure over matters that constitute a crime against the state, or a civil wrong against any particular citizen.

How can that be when journalists and their employers have regularly been hauled to court and will continue to be when they step out of line, as long as the aggrieved party has, like the Government, the money, the perseverance and the guts to prosecute a legal suit?

Now, when politicians need to hoodwink the masses to achieve political power and keep it, they use the Press. But beware the venom and virulence of journalists when, herd-like, they turn on the celebrity which they made.

For except for a sense of professionalism, there seems to be little to keep in check certain sections of the media, who, cloaking themselves in a righteous mantle, can go about spreading stories which are ill-researched and imbalanced.

Government understands well that whatever societal good to which it may lead, freedom of expression can be turned against liberty instead of being enlisted in its service.

Yet it is a fundamental freedom of any citizen. It is the matrix of nearly every other freedom. The ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas.

Kenyans are not foolish; if they can change governments, they can regulate the Press. Whenever there is no effective debate, the unrestricted right to speak or write will unloose so many propagandists, procurers, and panderers upon the public that sooner or later, in self-defence, the people will turn to the censors to protect them.

Dr Kalambuka teaches physics at the University of Nairobi.

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