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What is the Point of Free Speech if the Media Self-Censors?

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Last week, on the Kenya Imagine website, S Abdi Sheikh wrote a cogent piece on why he no longer bothers with Kenyan newspapers. I’m forced to agree with the main thrust of his argument, which is that there is no longer no real news in the Kenyan media. Press releases are recycled virtually word for word, journalists bury bad news at the behest of their political masters, and any meaningful criticism or analysis never makes it into press, unless a sub-editor inadvertently allows a particularly fruity letter from a reader to be published. While the developed world frets about the decline of newspaper sales, it is a matter of wonder and consternation to see Kenyan print media in such rude health.

I know that I have ragged on the Nation Media Group in the past. Hell, at one point I had to promise that they weren’t going to be a regular feature, but that does not excuse the scribes at the Standard, who I have occasionally suspected of ingesting narcotics before filing their copy, such have been the inaccuracies and flights of fancy that I have seen included in some of their articles. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is that both media houses are now more interested in serving the interests of their paymasters than actually doing what newspapers are supposed to do, which is to report the news. Consider the case of the disappearing article, where an embarrassing incident was scrubbed from the Nation website, but not before it had hit my RSS feed. How are the reading public supposed to have any confidence in what we read in the papers if all editorial has been passed through the filter of commercial interests?

It isn’t just the media houses though. Recall the fact that booksellers in Kenya were loath to stock John Githongo’s exposé, It’s Our Turn to Eat, for fear of getting sued, and the picture you get is one of a fourth estate that is fundamentally supine when it comes to holding the elite to account. If you want to know why there is so much impunity in the Kenyan political system, it’s because those who are up to no good are confident that their misdeeds will never reach public attention. They no longer have to police the media, because the media are doing that job for them. The deregulation of the market was supposed to usher in an era of greater openness and accountability; instead, authors and journalists are more craven than they ever were under a harsher regime.

The question that exercises me most is this: in the absence of any meaningful reportage from traditional media, will Kenyan netizens step into the breach? To be sure, there is a ready market for clear information about the back-room deals and under-the-table compromises that we no longer hear about; the problem is finding who will report on them, and whether they are able to do so without bias. Don’t bother with any of the forums or newsgroups; they’ve already been corrupted. I’d like to think that Kenya Imagine does a fairly good job in showcasing a number of different viewpoints, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?

What is needed is a new entrant to the market. Forget the Nairobi Star: it lost credibility within its first few issues. No, what is needed is a fearless iconoclast with the freedom to publish as it sees fit, with none of the political baggage or obligations of any of the big papers. Print or internet, I don’t care as long as they are honest. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future, and in the meantime, Kenyan news consumers are being done a disservice. We have the right to information, and that information deserves to be disseminated widely. It’s just a shame that currently we have to rely on the occasional blog or whistleblowing website to learn what would otherwise be reported by a truly free media.

[Image by Erix]

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