The Media Which Cried Wolf

Brenda Wambui
17 February ,2015

No street protests in support of KTN, NTV and Citizen TV, who collectively, have served Kenyans with dedication & passion over 25 years?

Saddique Shaban

The human mind is capable of amazing things, one of which is selective amnesia.

In March 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared Kenya’s fourth president, and barring his supporters, no one was happier than Kenyan media houses. One could tell that as they were reporting this victory, most of them were celebrating. It was as if they had also won. What had they won? We do not know. Before this, when asked if they had any questions regarding the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) after foreign media houses had been given the chance to ask, they were quiet. They had nothing to say. All we heard was their deafening silence.

Several journalists then went to take tea with Uhuru Kenyatta at Statehouse following his victory, in what is still seen as the transaction in which the Kenyan media officially agreed to sell out the Kenyan people. After that, we experienced a deluge of songs of praise by the media about the Jubilee coalition. They could do no wrong. The role of Official Opposition, People’s Watchdog and Informant of the People was taken over by Kenyans online, especially since the actual Official Opposition, CORD, was too busy making a fool of itself.

In 2014, digital migration in Kenya became imminent, even though it had gone over the 2012 deadline that former President Mwai Kibaki had set. Since then, we have experienced drama akin to that of a Mexican telenovela. Recently, the four TV stations (NTV, KTN, Citizen TV and QTV) argued that their channels were switched off by the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) after they raided their transmitters in Limuru and switched off their analogue equipment. The CAK, on the other hand, argues that the three stations turned off their signal in protest (this sounds more plausible, since they could have continued to air on digital channels, but chose not to) and aired inaccurate messages in breach of their licensing (i.e. the claims they are making against the government, as well as competitors such as GoTV and Star Times).

Before this, the rebel media houses (NMG, SMG and RMS) which own NTV and QTV, KTN and Citizen TV respectively, in a recent message airing in place of their regular programming, asked their viewers not to buy decoders from GoTV and Star Times, two pay TV distributors, so as to watch their channels. This, of course, is anti-competitive behavior and is against the law, which apparently only they should apply selectively. It led to the withdrawal of the self-provisioning license they had been issued, which was then reinstated pending a fine for bad behavior. They have claimed that despite the Supreme Court ruling to have digital licenses issued, the CA has not complied and thus forced a shutdown of signals. They also said that 90% of Kenyans were in a TV blackout, which is strange, given that only 2,650,200 households (30% of Kenyan households) own TV sets as per the last population and housing census in 2009.

Is it not a twist of poetic justice, then, that the media expects screams of protest in its favour, but all it hears is silence? How can they forget how they let us down in our time of need, yet they ask us to fight for them? These are the same journalists who claimed that in the protest against the primary school land grabbing in Lang’ata, activists “used” children to get what they wanted. Yet they wonder why no activists are on the street fighting for them. All of a sudden, they have important things to say. Very important things, in fact. About Tony Blair’s dalliance with our government. About corruption. About murder.

I have seen tweets where certain journalists suggest that Uhuru and his juggernaut must remember that the media played a big role in their election, and can be their undoing in the next election. That the media delivered the Jubilee Coalition a win, yet the government is clamping down on free speech. Was there a silent agreement? Deliver us a win in the election and you will be safe? I wonder.

This to me is evidence that these media houses are being hypocritical when they frame this war with the government as an attack on free speech and freedom of the press. Democracy – government of the people by the people for the people – and freedom go hand in hand. People can only govern themselves if they have information, and a wide angle view of situations. The media then serves as an important source of information in a democracy. We rely on the media to tell us what is going on in our society, as we cannot possibly experience everything. We rely on them to provide the context of the situation, so that we may know how to react. We rely on them to decide what matters and how it gets interpreted. We rely on them to check the government’s power. Freedom of the press is not an end in itself, it exists to make sure that a democracy is functional. Watching this wrangle, it is clear that it is nothing but a fight over market dominance and the status quo. The media houses in question speak of freedom of press as an end in itself, and this should show Kenyans that this is not being done for them, but for the balance sheet.

This is not to say that the claims being made by the three media houses are false, and that there was no impropriety involved in the awarding of the license to Pan Africa Network Group (PANG). The three media houses may very well be right about this. In fact, based on Kenya’s history, it is extremely likely that if investigated, there is another Chickengate scandal lying in wait in the digital migration process. This is to say that when it comes to keeping the government open and accountable, as any democratic government should aim to be, these media houses have largely failed.

The three media houses remind me of the boy who cried wolf. Kenyans have long protested for their freedom of speech, which goes hand in hand with freedom of press, but our counterparts in the media have spurned us time and time again, choosing only to turn to us when in dire need. Where were they when we needed them to cover the Security Bill/Act? When we needed them to stand by bloggers and internet users against unnecessary regulation and persecution by government? We have protested when it was necessary, when our freedoms were actually under attack, but not this time. The media is supposed to be an intermediary between the government and the people. What are the people to do when this intermediary publicly takes side with the government one day, and then asks us to rally for it the next? Can they really be trusted?

I invite these three media houses for a seat at our table. How does it feel to shout into the abyss, and hear nothing but the sound of silence? To be screwed over by the government? Were you not the ones who had “accept and move on” on replay for days on end after the 2013 elections? We suggest you do the same.

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