On 10th December, 2008, Parliament dealt a blow to the freedom of press and expression in Kenya by passing The Communications (Amendment) Bill, 2008. MPs were mainly driven by vengeance over the media’s sustained coverage of the taxation of their hefty salaries and allowances.
But is the media fraternity entirely blameless? The media celebrated in September 2007 when Hon. Mutahi Kagwe, then Minister for Information and Communications withdrew the same bill from Parliament citing the need for further consultations and introduction of clauses to deal with cyber crime and protect the optical fibre cable. My commentary on this Bill was published in the Business Daily on 4th September, 2007. Read here. Instead of using the window created by the withdrawal of the bill to highlight its weaknesses and lobby for the removal of the offending clauses, the media concentrated on political sideshows.
Over the years journalists in East Africa have failed or resisted attempts to establish an effective mechanism for self regulation. The results have been catastrophic. In Kenya wayward journalists have elevated politicians to the level of demigods through slanted coverage. In fact political content takes up most of the editorial space in the electronic and print media. My friends in the media openly admit that prominent politicians always have the press in tow because they generously tip (read bribe) reporters for favourable coverage. Any wonder that all media houses in East Africa often ignore professionals and businesses who sustain them through advertisement? I have been a victim of unethical conduct among journalists too. When invited to a purely professional event, reporters first inquire about the guest of honour. They display enthusiasm and ask for details when it is a politician depending on his or her perceived prominence. If it is a professional or a corporate leader, they display little enthusiasm even when a fortune has been spent on advertisement in their media houses. Coverage is also not guaranteed unless it has sensational political content. And even stranger, some ask for tips to facilitate publication of a good topical issue. I have been asked for bribes by journalists in Kenya , Uganda and Tanzania . In Tanzania , only ThisDay published a regional seminar on trans-national crime and money laundering attended by senior government officials in November 2006. In Kenya and Uganda , similar events attracted a paltry number of journalists and did not even get a mention in the local dailies because I refused to “tip”.
It is the prominence accorded to politics by the media in East Africa which has cultivated unparalleled arrogance in MPs giving them a sense of invincibility. MPs who often bribe reporters believe that they can ride roughshod on them and everybody else. I know that politicians bankroll journalists for favourable coverage and I have names of several reporters across all the media houses in Kenya . Some do not even hide, they brag about it.
In my capacity as an Advocate, Chairperson of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) – Kenya Chapter and Member of the Human Rights Committee – Law Society of Kenya I wish to warn the media fraternity in East Africa that what has happened in Kenya is likely to be replicated in the entire region. For now, reduce the level of political content and ignore MPs for one full month. This will put them in their right senses and plunge their arrogance. Accord more space to business, professional and societal matters and cite professionals rather than politicians as opinion leaders on topical issues. It is unconscionable to ask groups you have consistently ignored to come to your defence when the monster you have created turns against you. The Media Council should proactively deal with bribery and “tipping” of reporters within your ranks.