The State of Journalism in Kenya

The level of sensitization of an average Kenyan to receive and decode media messages is growing every second, leaving the journalism industry with no option but to grow. However, how mass communication institutions and media organizations respond to this demand doesn’t guarantee a bright future for journalism in Kenya. Despite many graduates and massive recruitment, journalism is rocked with fundamental issues, choking its very potential to grow.

During the August 2017 election, Kenyans through social media put pressure on journalists to report with accuracy and fairness. They seemed according to the majority as if dancing to the tune of politicians who often control how certain news are covered to favor their objectives. It is quite clear that this challenge and many more are glaring in front of the public, journalists, as well as other stake holders.

What Kenyan Journalists could boast of...

Odds can only be identified where something good has been brewed and this is exactly the situation Journalism in Kenya finds itself in. The end of Moi era for instance, marked a relief from a domination of a single party which vastly repressed media because of fear of criticism. In their work.

Today the freedom of Journalism is strengthened further by Articles: 33 - Freedom of Expression; 34 - Freedom of Media and 35 - Access to information. Therein are fundamental constitutional statements that guarantee the right of a journalist to get information and share; decide on the editorial decisions and get services like licensing. In addition, Journalism bodies such as Kenya Union of Journalists and Media Council of Kenya have the capacity to support the course. MCK for instance, is an independent institution which ensures that journalistic standards are upheld including providing regulations, accreditation and monitoring of the performance of journalists.

The "rot"...

Besides the blooming factors that are worth holding onto, journalism in Kenya has many cans of worms to be disposed of. These are basically founded on cultural, political, economic and educational dynamics that both have the potential to empower its growth but to a large extent destroy its very roots that are not yet deeply established.

Lack of Professionalism, for instance, is a big blow that is hard to ignore. UNESCO in their research, “Criteria and Indicators for Quality Journalism Training institutions and Identifying Potential Centers of Excellence in Journalism Training in Africa,” established interesting findings in 2007. Curriculum and Institutional capacity was considered one of the criterion in assessing African journalism. Interestingly, of all the near to 30 universities in Kenya offering communication courses, only University of Nairobi was mentioned as a potential center of excellence. Nevertheless, with challenges like congestion of programs and inefficient facilities for the expansion of activities.

Religion is also covered very minimally in most major stations unless it’s during religious events.

10 years on, the same challenges have multiplied themselves and are evident in almost every Journalism Institution. Journalists graduate from ‘ISO certified’ universities without mastering professionalism. This is evident in the lack of accuracy and fairness that is flawing news coverages. Technical knowhow is also maimed as many of these institutions lack basic equipment and facilities like cameras and communication labs.

Nevertheless, a worse threat that could overtake professionalism is the cutting of the wings of press laws that are meant to regulate and promote the industry. Even though the Kenya’s 2010 constitution guarantees freedom of press, journalists are continuously harassed, killed and tortured to gag them not to investigate issues or cover news with accuracy and fairness. The late Bernard Wesonga of the Star Newspaper, Mombasa, died March 31, 2013 under mysterious circumstances after having been kidnapped by men who had disguised themselves as police officers.

Adding to that, the draconian law which was introduced in the year 2013 with the aim of creating a government – controlled body with power to punish journalists and media houses was passed just a few months after the Kenyan media published about the West Gate Mall attack by terrorists. This move raised questions as to whether the coverage might have revealed too much that the Government would have not wished the whole world to know.

What is also worth noting is how election periods in Kenya are seasons that attract intimidation of journalists. A KTN journalists Duncan Khaemba for instance, was arrested as he was covering a protest against presidential results announced after August 2017 elections. He allegedly had his bullet proof vest and helmet without a license.

Another issue that would be absurd not to mention is how Media ownership affects editorial decisions that a board has to make. It is unfortunate that as much as a journalist may come back with stories from the field written with adhesion to the code of conduct, the angle it will take once it reaches the news desk is often beyond him/her. Media organization owners are most of the time guided by principles that are meant to favor either their business associates or powerful people in the Government.

Lastly, peace journalism is a forgotten tool that would help Kenyan journalists avoid escalating violence as they use vernacular in community radios and Televisions. As much as community radio promote media convergence, individual journalists are repeatedly tempted to get involved in incitements against certain tribes they consider their political enemies.

Charting the path to freedom...

Kenya as a whole may not have a remedial strategy to overhaul the whole situation but individual journalists do. Starting with fighting intimidation, journalists often trap themselves by bending to threats and blackmails, especially by powerful people who do not want their images mudded in public. Getting out of the situation may at times endanger the life of a journalist but often if one has the habit of pursuing his/her course legally and cautiously, there is always a way to publish the issues without compromising on one’s conscious to duty and profession.

Another area that may require careful scrutiny is how journalists are rewarded for their work. According to a survey conducted by The Kenya National Survey of Journalists conducted in 2013, 61.8% of journalists are not comfortable with their salary which fall between US$375 to US$625. This can easily pave way to addiction for ‘Brown envelop journalism.’ Media organizations could work into increasing the pay of reporters and cameramen who are poorly paid. They are the ones who go out to the field to gather news and with peanut salary their greatest harvest lie on especially politicians and businessmen who want stories to be covered in their favor.

Away from money issues, fresh graduates are often caught in the surprise of sudden changes that shed off their passion to do the right thing once they are in the job market. A majority start up their jobs with a lot of enthusiasm and the zeal to practice the code of conduct. At some point, once they get into the corrupt system, upholding ethical journalism becomes a thing of the past.

Accuracy and fairness for instance is often rubbed in the mud once a journalist becomes either tribal or biased to an extended they are blinded and cannot verify facts from both sides s they gather news.

However, a few journalists who escape this trap appear more professional and provide stories which are of public interest. This can only work for more journalists if their integrity is of more value to them than the rush to make dirty money.

A much bigger problem than the journalists themselves is the power of commercial journalism. Even though Media owners with the help of Media Council of Kenya have the capacity to ensure all regulations are adhered to, almost all media houses rely so much on big advertisers for revenue. The customers in return determine the content aired and such content have to favor them because they have paid for it.

As journalists are forced to bow to the demands of their employers, media consumers too, play a similar role. The haste to beat deadlines and deliver is at times more urgent than the need for quality content. This has promoted yellow journalism because there is no sufficient time to do research, verify facts and gather credible news. For this, investing more on personnel, ICT knowledge and sufficient equipment can help improve the productivity of the journalists.

In addition, the use of Social media by close to half the population of Kenya has enabled fast dissemination of media content to reach a bigger audience. Facebook and twitter even though contain fake news as well are a favorite platform that provide journalists with a bigger audience, public participation and commercial benefits from online advertisers. While Kenyan journalists face constant criticism from social media users/citizen journalists who often get to the news ahead of traditional media, they can use the pressure to their advantage and improve on their skills.

Against the race of time, journalism in Kenya can still be reformed. Globally, the competition is too high, Kenya can’t afford to lag behind.