BWIRE: Fourth estate here for the long haul

By Victor Bwire

Lest we are accused of endless lamentations and reaching a near level of writing obituaries for the media in Kenya because of the challenges experienced over the years and more recently because of COVID-19 outbreak, the media is still here with us for the longest time.

The media will surmount these disruptions through innovations but will need government to create a enabling environment including reducing commercial pressure on the media.

Preliminary findings from a study by the Media Council of Kenya commissioned recently on media factors affecting media viability in Kenya indicate that the legal and policy framework in Kenya does not support media that meets the viability indicators set out by UNESCO in its Media Development Indicators (MDIs).

Media in Kenya is not free and independent and unlike popular knowledge has long held and falls short of the globally accepted growth indicators. These indicators for viability are but not limited to presence of a supportive economic and business environment, structure and scope of the media economy, the media labour market, the financial health of media operations, including advertising, capital environment for media operations, organizational structures and resources support financial and market sustainability and contribution to national economy.

The study makes a number of observations including a call for dialogue between journalists, investors in the industry and the government to relook a number of things including media policy environment and legal regime, options for media funding and support from the public coffers, involvement of government in advertising buying, taxes on printing and broadcasting equipment, government support to journalists training and cost of content dissemination.

Government must make it easy for media to access quality and latest information, including from government funding researches by public agencies. Government must strengthen public communication, which was also a key finding of the David Makali-led taskforce of government communication.

Make it cheap for the media to access information through improving frequency and structure of sharing public information- as required by the access to information Act 2016. A relook of the executive orders creating the Government Advertising Agency in 2015 and the establishment of MyGov in 2017 is a must.

The study established that media viability, defined as the ability of media outlets and media landscapes to produce high quality journalism in a sustainable way while crucial crucial for citizens to have stable access to reliable information is lacking in Kenya. Data collected suggests that there are a number of laws and policies in the country that are prohibitive to media viability.

These include but are not limited to sections in: Computer misuse and cybercrimes Act, Public order Act, Public Health Act, Books and Newspapers Act, Kenya Information and Communication Act, Kenya Broadcasting Act, Cap 221, Defamation Act, the Penal Code, Cap 63; the Books and Newspapers Act, Cap 11; Copyright Act, Cap 130; Preservation of Public Security Act, Cap 57; Public Order Act, Cap 56; Film and Stage Plays Act, Cap 222; Chief’s Authority Act, Cap 128; Official Secrets Act, Cap 187; Police Act, Cap 84; Armed Forces Act, Cap 199. These laws and regulations affect media viability in Kenya.

These intended policy review for the media we want in Kenya require constant and open discussions between the government and the media that will establish structured creation for an enabling environment for the viable media.

The cost of gathering and disseminating news in Kenya is very expensive. A law is needed in the country on media and information literacy for people to appreciate and support independent media. This can only be achieved through educating and creating structures for people to value and trust media, investing in the media industry to allow it play a critical role in national development and shaping national debates.

The Dr John Oluoch led study concludes that to ensure ownership of all the laws that relate to and are likely to operationally influence media practice and viability, participatory approaches to drafting the bills, policies and regulations must be maintained so that media practitioners that are influenced by the very laws are made to feel part and parcel of their development and subsequent implementation.

Lastly, there is need to ensure that the word and spirit of the laws that have been put in place actually guide media practice to ensure continuous viability across all the media platforms at all times. New business approaches and innovation are required to assure the media industry a future, but more importantly, an enabling environment is critical for a free and independent including dealing firmly with people who harass and intimidate journalists.

Bwire works at the Media Council of Kenya as the Head of Media Development and Strategy