Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Why Free Press remains an illusion in Kenya

 “I listen to the radio daily because it is part of my schedule, and I love giving my opinions about everything discussed, and when I have enough time, I sit watching local Television news.”

These were the words of 62-year-old John Adamba, when this writer asked him about his experience with the media.

The dedicated vegetable farmer from Luucho Village regularly contributes to local radio stations by sharing insights on various topics.

For him, these radio programs serve as a vital source of news, entertainment, and information.

I think media capture is the takeover of communications platforms by interested parties in politics

John Adamba, farmer

Just like Adamba, Mama Sarah Akinyi is a radio listener who has benefited much with the uplifting conversations from her favorite gospel radio show.

And apart from that, she says the radio has connected her to different people who follow up conversations, and have meet ups with other listeners through radio and activate projects meant to make their lives better through fan clubs. 

Despite their limited engagement in the operations of the media houses, the duo have some clue on what informs the content aired by the stations.

During his long term engagement with the media, Mr Adamba admits that sometimes certain stories are being ignored and even silenced when he tries to bring them up during calls to radio stations. 

This is in contrast with his belief that media rarely has influence, and he trusts what journalists report on.

“I think media capture is the takeover of communications platforms by interested parties in politics,” said Adamba when the writer sought his understanding of media capture.

To them, media plays a crucial role in society by highlighting various issues, with journalists leading the way in uncovering matters of public interest.

Journalists as perpetrators and victims

Journalists seem to be the biggest hit in situations of media capture. However, the debate is only held in whispers, as media capture is a tool used by powerful forces in the society.

Joshua (Not his real name) is a radio journalist based in Bungoma. He admits that some of his actions have contributed to media capture.

More than once, he says he has engaged specific news sources to cater for his needs, even though he knows it is not entirely ethical. 

“Engaging a news source directly will always control on how I have to publish my final story because I have to ensure that the source is satisfied on how the story gets aired for their benefits,” he says.

Similarly, Jane (Not her real name), who works in both radio and TV acknowledges presence of different forms of influence in her daily work, pointing out that many journalists have normalized such practices with a local slang term, “Nyongolo”, which acts as a drive to publish stories. 

Journalist Jacky Opiyo (left) during an interview with James Chanji Wamukoya, Managing Director of Western Television Network

Article 33 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression states that; ‘every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas.’

Thus, the public has the right to access quality information, be informed, demand accountability, and access information that is in their best interest. 

Journalists are tasked with providing the public with accurate and trustworthy information, promoting democracy, and advocating for social change.

However, with media capture, the public may not receive accurate or unbiased information, as it could be manipulated by influential individuals or businesses.

What the regulators say

Evans Teddy Oundo, the Media Council of Kenya’s (MCK) Western Regional Coordinator attests that the current environment where journalists are working has significantly changed.

MCK is the regulatory body of the media in Kenya.

Mr Oundo says the emergence of technology has made it easier for the public to access information, but at the same time notes that numerous challenges have come in hand with impacts of media capture. 

“With the devolved structures in the government, journalists are working locally to cover events easily but media sustainability is a challenge, which hinders the work of journalists, allowing issues of unprofessionalism that affects quality of content,” he says.

The Aga Khan University’s Media-Viability-Report  on Innovation and Media Viability in East Africa highlights that some media houses in Kenya fail to provide non-partisan reporting due to their political ties.

The report attributes political capture as prevalent, as politicians own media houses serving their interests. This, the report states, is a major obstacle in ensuring free and independent media.

Feeling the impacts of media capture

Bungoma County has 15 media houses, including radio and television stations covering most parts of Western Kenya.

Majority of content in these stations is broadcast in Swahili, with some channels offering programming in local languages like Bukusu.

Western Kenya has high media consumption rates, with TV and radio remaining the dominant media platforms in the region.

State of the media report 2022 by the Media Council of Kenya states that Television and Radio have consistently outperformed other platforms, standing out as the main media platforms.

James Wamukoya and Robert Wanyonyi recognize the presence of media capture and political interference in the industry.

They emphasize the importance of maintaining editorial policies and ethics to ensure that journalists provide accurate and unbiased information to the public.

Wamukoya, the Managing Director of Western Television Network, highlights on prevalence of politicians working with local media houses to promote their messages without proper oversight. “It is easy for politicians to try penetrating local media houses and choose working with journalists having their message displayed without even engaging the management,” he says.

Wamukoya acknowledges the adverse effects of media capture on public perception, saying the public often detects signs of preferential treatment or bias towards specific individuals associated with media outlets, leading to a loss of trust and hindering accountability measures.

“We have taken significant steps to filter news originating from politicians and advertisers, prioritizing stories that are genuinely newsworthy before they are broadcasted,” he says.

Wanyonyi, the CEO of Tandao Media Group points out that media houses often rely on advertisers for sustainability, which can lead to media capture, emphasizing on the rampant issue of media capture within the county. 

“In a landscape where many media outlets rely on advertisers for financial stability, there exists a risk of influence from county governments and other stakeholders seeking to manipulate content and editorial policies,” says Wanyonyi.

As a media proprietor, Wanyonyi actively involves himself in all ongoing operations, even with a team of editors and professionals who are also susceptible to external engagements.

He says upholding strict editorial policies and ethical standards is paramount for media organization.

Wanyonyi asserts; “Unlike other owners, I make it a point to visit the newsroom at least three times daily to ensure that news is being presented ethically by reporters covering diverse beats. This approach also serves as a mechanism to alert journalists if a story lacks ethical standards and is unfit for publication.”

The Media Council of Kenya and other organizations and unions  are crucial in shaping strategies to mitigate the detrimental effects of external influences on media integrity.

Mr Oundo says MCK brings together different stakeholders to work on media information literacy programs, aimed to educate stakeholders on how media operates and how it was envisioned to work under the Kenyan Constitution resulting to responsible consumption of media content. 

He further reiterated the importance of advocacy engagements with national and county governments to work together as an industry to liberate the challenges experienced.

Eric Oduor, the Secretary General of the Kenya Union of Journalists states that there is still a need to have trainings and advocacy against media capture.

“There are good laws that govern the media in Kenya, but observation of the laws is the issue,” he says.

Odour further attests that media in Kenya depends on the government for sustainability through business and might find it challenging to cover issues in relation to the government.

Code for Africa and Civic Signal (2024) ‘Media Capture’. African Data and Democracy Observatory report gives recommendation on the need of media organizations to have clear partnership declaration section on their websites or in broadcasts disclosing any content agreements and need to be transparent on the resources they receive from a sponsor government in relation to content and production. 

 Media owners in the region have been on the fore front to filter and regulate content that is consumed with the public, with them attributing the impact of it to their audiences. 

This content was developed thanks to a grant administered by Kenya Editors Guild. The project received support from the Thomson Reuters Foundation as part of its global programme aiming to strengthen free, fair and informed societies. The financial assistance provided has no influence or bearing on the journalist’s editorial work. The content of this article belongs solely to the author and is not endorsed by or associated with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Thomson Reuters, Reuters, nor any other affiliates”.

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