Kenya’s Media Problem

by Robert Munuku

When I turn on the television, I am not sure whether I am watching the news or a travesty of the same in the name of a glorified show of beautiful men and women dressed up in dashing tunics and layers of make-up smiling before our screens telling us what we should care about. I fear for journalism in this country, and flinch at the thought that the deterioration of one of society’s key institutions will be to our detriment.

Mainstream media in Kenya is far from politically neutral and this in itself is enough stir concern. A quick recap at the major mainstream media houses in our country: The Nation Media Group (which owns The Nation and NTV, Mediamax Limited (which owns K24), Royal Media Services (which owns Citizen TV and Radio, among other radio stations), the Standard Media Group (which owns The Standard and KTN), and Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).  I am intrigued by the ownership of these media houses, their board constitutions and their implied affiliations.

The Nation Media Group (NMG) is owned by the Aga Khan Foundation, founded in 1959 by his Highness the Aga Khan. At face-value this seems okay, after all, the foundation is more or less an autonomous entity. But when we take a look at the board members of NMG we see some familiar faces; allow me to pick one – Professor Olive Mugenda. Prof. Mugenda served as the Vice Chancellor of Kenyatta University (a public university) and was later appointed by the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, early this year to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). This may not mean anything and one could say she was vetted and therefore qualifies for the job. However it is often the case that such nominations are done based on trust and a history of loyalty.

The Kenya Television Network (KTN) was founded by Jared Kangwana, a close ally of retired President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi for years. This affiliation was accentuated in a land donnybrook four years ago where Kangwana stated that the former President had allocated the land to him.  Going by the former President’s endorsement of our current President in 1997 as KANU’s (Kenya National Union party) presidential flag-bearer, it would not be a far-fetched assumption that KTN and its mother company, Standard Media Group, leans more towards government. The former Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) parastatal boss, Dr. Julius Kipng’etich, also sits as a board member of the Standard Media Group.

K24 TV is owned by the Kenyatta family to the best of the public’s knowledge; no need to say where their loyalties lie. The same goes for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) which is not only the pioneer media house in the country, but also a parastatal run by the government. We are left with one more mainstream media house to look to for authentic unbiased journalism – Royal Media Services or, if you prefer, Citizen TV.

In the 2013 general elections in Kenya, the owner of Royal Media Services, Samuel Kamau Macharia (popularly known S.K. Macharia), was seen standing next to the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, in a press conference at which the election results were being contested. Moments after the famous press briefing, several articles arose from independent media houses claiming that he was in fact using his media house, Royal Media Services, to support the former Prime Minister’s election bid.

Fast-forward to 2018, Royal Media Services conducted what is arguably the largest poaching drive in the industry’s history, literally milking-dry all their competitors, especially KTN and NTV (Nation TV of Nation Media Group).  Among those poached were KTN former Managing Editor, Joe Ageyo, whose new role is not clear yet given we have seen him intermittently reporting features for Citizen. Joe Ageyo was also one of the 2 journalists who moderated the 2017 Presidential Debate alongside the then Nation T.V. Managing Editor, Linus Kaikai. It is worth noting too that Asha Mwilu, an award-winning journalist who worked closely with Joe during his stint as Managing Editor at KTN, was poached together with him to join Royal Media Services. Another personality to note among the poached is Yvonne Okwara-Matole, from KTN. Like Joe Ageyo, she too was a moderator for the running-mates’ debate in the 2017 general elections.

Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu were summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headquarters for allegedly refusing to comply with a directive regarding the airing of the former Prime Minister’s ‘swearing-in’ ceremony. One month later, Larry Madowo resigned from his post at the Nation Media Group. Linus Kaikai, who was accosted with him, also resigned shortly after the summons to CID headquarters. He later moved to Royal Media Services.

It is said that “grand alliances between two great powers are generally the least effective.” Could this apply to the infamous ‘handshake’ between our President and former Prime Minister? Would it be so absurd to entertain the possibility that the shake-up in the media is connected to this?

When I turn on the news, all I see is tragedy; rape at Moi Girls Secondary School, the recent demolitions by NEMA, hordes of corruption cases from that of the National Youth Service (NYS) to the more recent of supposed misuse of office by the former governor of Nairobi. I know when a dog bites a man it is no news and ‘news’ would only constitute the opposite, but have we taken ‘bad news’ too far? Has our news been reduced to insensitive sensationalism of even the most tragic moments of our times? Do journalists care about telling the truth – about sharing honest stories from the same masses that the media fraternity serves, or is winning an award for a story more important for them?

Has mainstream journalism in our country been co-opted by the political elite?

Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku

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