T R Lansner/ From broadcast news to blogosphere, Kenya’s Fourth Estate is today too often only another bit of real estate up for grabs by the highest or best-connected bidders, from actual ownership to other often insidious influences. From an already troubled situation in 2012, Kenya media freedom has deteriorated markedly under the current government. The wide variety of energetic media outlets paints a patina of pluralism and vibrancy that belies pervasive obstacles to a genuinely active, open media. Fast evolving business models are challenging all media houses. More significant to news content are “soft censorship” exercised through official financial pressure on media houses; impunity for harassment and physical intimidation of journalists; and the ubiquitous “Brown Envelope Rot” that severely constrains Kenya media’s capacity to honestly address the most important issues facing their country.
During a five-week visit to Kenya in June-July, I met with dozens of journalists and many civil society activists across five counties from Coast to Nyanza. Perspectives I gathered are admittedly anecdotal, but amply reinforced by other reporting, and deserve broader and deeper investigation. Below is a distillation of the most compelling observations, as gleaned from a range of media people, from bloggers to top editors—a few senior, and rather jaded, some young and almost alarmingly unformed.
Many of these matters affect and afflict not only Kenya media. Over the past two years, I have learned of similar challenges in meetings with journalists in Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, and Uganda, and further afield beyond Africa. “Brown Envelope Rot” (as a Malawian reporter dubbed it), intimidation, soft censorship, skewed coverage of women, poor election coverage, these all are widespread concerns; on the last, mainstream US reporting of the 2016 presidential contest is a textbook failure.
These reflections are framed in the Kenya context of a nominally free press, with additional reference to the current campaign season. These elections, too, will pass—we ardently hope peacefully—but the need to build an active, open media that enables genuine democratic debate will persist. How that should be done is beyond the scope of this piece, and should be the subject of urgent discussion for Kenya media and civil society, in conjunction with officials genuinely committed to their country’s democratic development.
1. Devolved Revenue, Devolved
Devolution of governmental authority and revenue to county level has been accompanied by a little-remarked devolution of hard and soft censorship of media outside Nairobi, including in some counties widespread bribery where most of the press corps is bought-out, and blatant physical intimidation of journalists by governors and even Members of County Assembly, and aspirants for office. Follow the money, anyone?
2. Fakery in Cyberspace… and Elsewhere
Kenya’s burgeoning cyberspace is facilitating much mischief in the form of ‘fake news’. Manufactured tweets and fabricated Facebook posts, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “are riding the SGR while truth sits jammed at the Likoni ferry.” But very few Kenya media folk are easily duped. The real problem is that many journalists, even in major media houses, can be bribed to report half-truths, and some editors require whole lies. Potemkin lead to investigative journalists: search ye a much-lauded shower, suckled by a bowser.
3. Vernacular Polarisation
The growing reach of regionally based vernacular commercial radio and television across Kenya may accelerate already deep polarisation of perception of current events and Kenya’s basic challenges among various ethnic groups. This, and the chasms of understanding of ‘historical injustices’ among Kenya’s peoples, sharply affect what people feel is ‘real’. Deeply entrenched alternative narratives are far more dangerous than ‘fake news’. These divides are sometimes sharply present in newsrooms, as well, with ethno-political pre-conceptions and biases sometimes over-riding factual reporting.
4. Brown Envelope Rot
“Envelopmental Journalism” is the norm across most Kenya media, from salaried staff reporters to poorly-compensated county ‘correspondents’ [largely free-lancers who are paid little more than Sh500-1,000 for an article]. Paid-for press prevails not only because almost all sectors of Kenya society consider corruption as entirely normal; journalists, particularly the free-lance ‘correspondents’, are so ill-paid that, day-to-day, being biddable is tantamount to financial survival. Think unga.Consider school fees. Ponder sugar…. Kenya media people are highly vulnerable and often pliable to financial inducements—from officials, from business, from civil society—even as some reporters describe how painful it is not to operate as the professional journalists they thought they would be.
This Brown Envelope Rot reaches taints editorial levels in newsrooms of major media houses, where reporters find stories unfavourable to certain governors and other politicians routinely spiked, and where journalists believe they are spied on not only by the NIS, but by bought-out colleagues.
5. ‘No-go’ Stories
A number of issues cannot be covered in meaningful fashion, unless and until they almost literally explode in a very public fashion. ‘No-go’ stories include anything that might too much discomfit the ‘High&Mighty’: top-level corruption; narco-trafficking; land-grabbing; extrajudicial killings [call it murder] from Kwale to Lamu. And Coast journalists also report threats from extremists who menace them and their families.
6. Homage to Titans
Some of these worst ‘qualities’ described above converged this July in an orgiastic outpouring of media homage (especially on television) to political ‘titans’ who passed from this world. The almost totally hagiographic hullabaloo following Nicholas Biwott’s death was surely the lapdog nadir. In a 2006 piece describing Biwott as “Kenya’s comeback king”, the BBC offered: “True or not, Mr. Biwott has continued to be seen by many Kenyans as a symbol of the darkest days of former President Moi’s rule”. Yet nearly all was now bathed in purest light of laundered hindsight, unless one plumbed corners of the internet offering an “alternative eulogy”. Are there any readers who would have accepted a tour of Nyayo House from the man back in the day? Journalism serving as the first rough draft of history has here already been well hashed into sausage to assuage even the departed ‘High&Mighty’.
7. Reporting on Women/Women Reporters
Coverage of women in Kenya politics is often skewed and sometimes overtly sexist, unless one holds this is appropriate in a traditionally conservative and patriarchal society. Indeed, many reporters [female and male] say it is often hard to get women to offer opinions, especially for publication. Within the media sphere, women reporters describe almost unceasing sexual harassment and even physical abuse by colleagues and from people they seek to report on; many male journalists dismiss such despicable behavior as “part of the game”.
8. Civil Society: Allies and/or Corruptors
Kenya’s media and civil society are natural allies who need to learn to work better together. CSOs complain that media practitioners expect the same sort of bribes [sorry, brown envelopes] to cover social justice efforts as are supplied by businesses and politicos…. and too many CSOs are willing to join the game. Journalists rightly view much CSO ‘news’ as PR puffery aimed to impress donors. CSOs must supply media credible “news they can use”, and introduce reporters to relatable stories of real people that will engage broad audiences and promote much-needed social and environmental awareness and change.
9. The Election Season
In this campaign season, issues described above are often exacerbated by the zero-sum competition of Kenya elections. The emphasis on the personality driven “horse-race” coverage and fascination with sometimes flawed and even meaningless polls are common in many countries. Parties’ positions on issues and how they might affect real people receive even scanter coverage than usual. Intensified bribery or intimidation of media to assure positive coverage is a persistent part of the campaign playbook to gain office as a gateway to great spoils. Political candidates, even on the local level, invest immense sums to win offices whose salary could never recoup such costs. Scandals of the ‘High&Mighty’, even when exposed to an intrepid reporter [and rarely in any major media outlet], sink even more quickly than usual from public scrutiny.
Women candidates often receive less favourable coverage, facing questions of home life and financing never asked of men. And partisan vernacular coverage that predictably leans towards one party only will widen the gulf of intolerance that threatens another post-election conflagration.
10. And Yet… Excellence, Sometimes Sighted
There is still excellent and insightful journalism performed in Kenya. Important issues that don’t touch the most powerful can be addressed with vigour that promotes change, such as providing sanitary napkins for schoolgirls. Many Kenyan scribes would delight in being the crusading watchdogs they dreamed of during their studies, or perhaps as young people growing up to the unwaveringly authoritative tones of the BBC in a remote rural home. A few media people still take great risks to expose malfeasance of the ‘High&Mighty’—even if such investigative work now rarely reaches mainstream media. Some committed reporters today work with media-savvy CSOs that help them explore and explain the plight of real people, producing high-quality reporting on the most urgent social issues of the day—and need not be bribed to do so. Some media outlets offer models and means for tolerance.
The Watchdog and Kenya’s Caravan of Corruption
But journalism in Kenya is described as a younger person’s game. Not just because supporting a family on a reporter’s salary is testing for most honest media folk. The profession, I heard too often, is profoundly morally sapping. Even the finest and fiercest watchdog reporting, even when not spiked, even when drawing pointed retribution, has for far too long evoked scant change. The ‘High&Mighty’ can quite simply ignore it, confident that they are beyond any earthly jurisdiction. The Weston Hotel cholera case in Nairobi is a very recent example, the ICC another.
Even the equatorial sunlight is robbed of its disinfectant qualities. The watchdog barks, but enfeebled, can but howl toothless. The Kenya corruption caravan carries on—a cackle of hyenas passing, laughing over the spoils—in the fine full glare of impunity.
Responses and reactions [commendations, emendations, condemnations, feel free!] are welcome from all, especially Kenya county correspondents, staff writers, editors, media owners, media analysts, pundits, CSOs… and of course the Kenya blogosphere, including its many non-partisan/disinterested/impartial bloggers, tweeters, and FB-posters [but please do mention if anyone is paying you to post ;-].
Thomas R Lansner was long ago a correspondent for the London Observer, BBC and others in Africa and Asia. He is a member of the Distinguished Visiting Faculty at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University, Nairobi. [email protected] The views he expresses here are entirely his own.
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