Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fourth Estate Betrayal

If it was not clear yet, let me make it plainly so: I am not a journalist. Which makes me perfectly suited to stand in judgment of the Fourth Estate, doesn't it? After all, as Michael Joseph will sooner or later endorse, that is another of our peculiar habits. Carrying on from where I left off in my previous post, our conflation of "media" and "press" has led to an unfortunate understanding of the media and the press in Kenya. 

When we talk of "media", I do not automatically think of journalists or news reporters, though that is its modern meaning. I usually think of television, radio, newspapers and the internet as "media". I believe that in Kenya this failure to distinguish between the media houses that employ journalists and those journalists has contributed greatly to the friction between the media houses and the government, the media houses and the consumers of news, especially political news, and between journalists and the government. As I understand it, a democracy only works if the people choose who governs them freely, if the choices their government makes are made with the people's consent, and where the people shall know of their government's deeds and misdeeds from an unrestrained press.

We may have held free elections in 1960 and 1962, but the doubts surrounding the Little General Election and all subsequent elections will never, ever subside because with the deterioration of the political process came a co-option of the press for the perfidious ends of a few, usually the president and his closest business and political cronies. Fateful events have taken place n Kenya since Independence; journalists have reported the news, sometimes even faithfully, but they have done little to contextualise the events. I wasn't alive, but the impression I got from my father's generation of the assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki was that it were insiders in Jomo Kenyatta's government who plotted and executed the assassinations, that journalists knew and that they kept the truth from the people. Few of them even considered consigning their suspicions in private journals that could get published posthumously.

With the assassination of Robert Ouko and the suspected hi-tech assassination of Masinde Muliro, Kenyan journalists had an opportunity to redeem themselves. They let it go without asking of Daniel Moi's government the hard questions that lead to the fall of governments elsewhere. Then came the 1992 and 1997 election-linked clashes and the journalists sensationally reported the murder, rape, rapine, arson and banditry in gory detail, but they studiously turned a blind eye to the burning embers of the rumours of provincial administration and Kenya Police Force bigwigs supplying firearms, simis, spears and rungus to militia who were funded by politicians close to Daniel Moi's government.

Then came the All Africa Games and the two-hundred million shilling hold that Henry Kosgei left behind when the last athletes had left for home. Even then the journalists would not raise their heads above the parapet. Soon after came Goldenberg and the "liberalisation" of the economy through the privatisation of parastatals like the  Kenya Posts & Telecommunications Corporation. What ran through all the sensational stories published "bravely" by the Daily Nation and the East African Standard was the softly-softly approach they took when it came to Moi's favourite MPs. The newspapers' journalists and commentators have never been able to effectively explain why they did not take a stand against the spectre of suspects getting courts to whitewash the suspects' alleged crimes by "removing their names from reports" of commissions of inquiry or parliamentary investigative committees.

We believed that the Second Republic would use the constitutional protections of speech and access to information to keep the government on its toes. It is time to admit that ours is a false hope and that the only difference between the Second Republic and the Independence one is one of size and scale. There are no so many power centres and avenues for corruption that it makes no sense to think of ourselves as living in a democracy. We are living in the age of betrayal and no betrayal bites as much as that by the Fourth Estate.

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