31 October 2013

Kenya: Gagging Media Fans Growth of Other Outlets

Photo: The Star
Parliament approves media bill aimed at gagging the media (file photo).


In the revolutions of the previous age, a liberation hero would emerge and lead the victors of a hard fought liberation struggle. Thus became Castro, Kenyatta, Mandela and many other great leaders. However recent events around the world defy this established trend.

Hundreds of people begin protests in a city land mark, they spread their struggle via social media and the coverage of traditional media and become thousands. They picket and shout for days and eventually achieve their goal of creating social or political change. They then search for a leader amongst or outside them. This play has been repeated several times in the last two years, from Tunisia, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Turkey to Brazil.

A key feature of this social and political uprisings has been their lack of leadership faces. They seem to be driven by their social or political zeal rather than by charismatic leaders making heroic speeches and dares at the establishment.

There are no ring leaders or subversives to arrest and try, just thousands of young people shouting in streets and engaging the authorities. Importantly many of the countries that have endured these uprisings have been characterised by strong governments and even more stringent media laws. The lack of expression in these countries have driven the people to alternative media channels.

Firstly, because the media laws are structured to protect the establishment the existing media becomes less believable, as to stay in business media houses have to be "compliant". The people in a struggle thus find little use for them as sources of information or places of opinion reference.

Because the media are less credible , then the best sources of information become the underground sources or the peer to peer sources. News from a friend who knows becomes more useful and believable than news from formal established sources. As these networks become more credible they grow in size and efficiency in spreading important information. Any one who lived through the 80's in Kenya will tell you this story backwards. A breaking strory or analysis was often spread through photocopies of TIME or NEWSWEEK sold like contraband in traffic.

While governments expended every energy to "manage" what media did and said, the people who read this publications sought newer sources of information and thus have grown large networks of people news sources. So what is the lesson here ?

Firstly, governments around the world have all but given up trying to control the internet as a people influence tool. Secondly, traditional media vehicles are experiencing fewer and fewer hours of use as well as reducing audiences. Thus, any decisions to thwart the ability of the existing media from being a place of true and free expression will only accelerate its decline. Thus you will have a strongly regulated media that has fewer audiences each year, which I suppose defeats the original intent.

Suspicious audiences will also gravitate towards media areas that provide freedom and free expression. These media also happen to be the harder to regulate. Thus any action to " tough" regulate will rapidly create growth where it is hardest to regulate. After weighing the pros and cons, maybe the media will achieve its own equilibrium. It might even evolve to extinction without government's help.

Frank is a media professional at FMC . Frank@Frankmaina.com

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