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January 19, 2019

State’s move on advertising is shortsighted

The outdoor advertising truck./JACK OWUOR
The outdoor advertising truck./JACK OWUOR

Back in the day, I was a bit naïve. I basically thought the US were just like ‘us’ – ‘us’ then being north western Europe. This was wrong, I later realised. The recent political developments highlighted this again (whatever right-wing fringe Germany has, for example, we don’t have a critical mass of anti-science evangelical Taliban running riot in our country).

As a writer, I was, and I am, intrigued by the fake news phenomenon – alternative facts aren’t facts, they are lies, of course. Fake news make it impossible to agree on some sort of shared reality. The current US administration used them in the run up to the election, and their treatment of the press since then has been appalling.

But apparently not everyone thought that US President Donald Trump’s press relations were deeply troubling – some people, like President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration, seem to have been inspired. Already months behind on their advertising payments, the government now just decided that no money at all would go to the local media anymore: the Cabinet decided that all print advertising would cease, and the government would print its own ‘My Gov’ paper for free circulation.

The superficial explanation is one of saving money, which will convince exactly nobody, most certainly not against the profligacy in every other area (well, except for teachers, doctors and famine victims. Services for poor people, you know). The actual explanation is the government’s whiny conviction that they just can’t catch a break and always, always get bad headlines for all their efforts. Pole. Naturally, you would think that fixing the issues might be a promising route if you don’t want such coverage. Alas, not in this administration, who appear to have a similar approach as Trump’s: we don’t like it, we don’t accept it.

Print media around the world struggle, so Kenya’s media is not alone in this. But Kenya’s situation is made worse by the fact that the corporate advertising pool is small, which creates other challenges: how many in-depth investigative stories about the country’s main corporate advertisers have you ever read? This situation will now be exacerbated if government’s print advertising is halted entirely: it may as well kill off significant parts of Kenya’s print media. An astonishing step in 2017, and one of such short sightedness and irresponsibility.

But I do wonder: Radio has greater reach than print. Digital media have benefitted from the rapid spread of cheap smart phones. And the gloves are off anyway. So will this be an incentive for the media to dig properly into investigative reporting in politics, government spending and election preparation?

Andrea Bohnstedt is an independent analyst


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