Kenya: Reassuring Pledge to Media as Nation Goes Digital

Council of Governors Chairman Wycliffe Oparanya addresses the press in Nairobi, flanked by his colleagues, on August 29.
6 September 2020

The Nation Media Group on Friday took its boldest step into the digital space and pledged enduring fidelity to its well-tested principle of speaking for the voiceless and standing up to power, even as it embraced the African continent as its marketplace.

The government, powerfully represented, reaffirmed its commitment to media freedom, even if on occasions it did not agree to "whatever version of truth" the media was espousing.

It was a rare, happy coincidence where a media celebration provided an opportunity for government to reaffirm its commitment to press freedom, which is often breached with impunity, despite being guaranteed in the Constitution.

The chief guest at the function was Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i, who by his own acknowledgement was an unlikely guest because in 2015, he shut down three major local television stations during the protracted wrangle over digital migration.

The media had gone to court to plead for a delay in the switch-over date but they lost and were switched off for several weeks.

Mobile-driven digital world

Friday's launch of therefore provided an apt platform for the minister to argue vindication - that media then were just delaying a reality that was inevitable. The reality was that media, corporates, governments and every other entity that transacted business with the masses had to go digital. We had entered a world defined by "data, design and devices" and there was no turning back.

Indeed, there is no turning back. The Nation Media Group has been forced, under the dire circumstances triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, to accelerate its leap into the mobile-driven digital world.

The process of responding to a consumer whose life has, for a while now, revolved around the mobile phone has finally started in earnest, the intent being to upend the traditional advertiser based revenue model and replace it with primarily a digital subscription or paid-for content model.

It is a sea change in the editorial and commercial processes that will require significant time and cash investment to nurture and whose success the current team will certainly not see.

But they must keep at it for, as Editorial Director Mutuma Mathiu said, the energy and creativity poured into creating the launch product was merely a kilometre of a 42-kilometre marathon. It was heartening to see ideas that we strove to embed in the NMG process and culture finally sprout with a promise of real growth.

It was doubly gratifying to hear Dr Matiang'i reassure the country that despite differences that are bound to occur in the way media and government perceive issues, there is nothing that the media will do or can do that will provoke the government to claw back the freedoms that the Constitution guarantees and that have been allowed to flourish over. In his own words, there will inevitably be occasions for "active fellowships" between government and media, but there will be no clampdowns and curtailment of media freedom.

Such assurances, given at a time when media outlets are having a horrendous time in places like Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Sudan, South Sudan and others, are refreshing.

Particularly so when we are aware that President Uhuru Kenyatta has not, and is unlikely to walk back his derisive dismissal of newspapers as being good only for wrapping meat!

Powerful affirmation

It could be fantastic if Dr Matiangi's very positive words could expedite moves to complete investigations into cases where government operatives have been accused of heavy-handed treatment of journalists doing their work. Symbolism is a powerful affirmation of stated intent and closure of pending matters could be a strong statement indeed.

This becomes even more relevant as, as Dr Matiang'i again alluded, the political season is here and it is going to put unbearable pressure on our ethnically frayed political relations. The 2022 political transition will be extremely competitive and dangerously divisive.

Camps are already forming around personalities and the din will only get louder, the abuses more vulgar and the threat of violence permanently present.

The social media space will be the hideout for vigilantes to do hatchet jobs and incite violence. Sober, moderated and nuanced reporting and commentating in that space will be sorely needed and must rise to the occasion, both on its own motion and on the back of the strong assurances of Dr Matiang'i.

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