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Why media freedom is not negotiable

Last week this column highlighted the issue of transparency as a key weapon in the war against corruption. Here’s some more evidence.

Researchers recently set up a secret experiment at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. Work colleagues were asked to put money into an ‘honesty box’ to pay for their hot drinks, rather than pay per consumption. For ten consecutive weeks the researchers pinned one of two posters onto the wall behind the drinks area – the first showed a pair of eyes, the other a bunch of flowers.

At the end of each week, the amount of money in the box was counted and compared with the amount of milk used. The researchers were expecting a subtle effect when the eyes were up on the wall, but were taken aback by the actual impact. When the flowers were up, donations were between 10 and 30 pence (Sh 13 and 40) per litre of milk used. When the eyes were ‘watching’, the amount given shot up to 70 pence per litre (Sh 93).

Scrutiny matters – we behave better when we’re being watched, even if it’s only eyes on a poster doing the watching. And for society as a whole, there is one very effective set of ‘eyes’ that matters most – the media. Let us never forget: a free, independent and vibrant media sector is a prerequisite to economic success. Development does not come to places where secrets lie unexposed, where wrongdoing remains buried, where performance failure is not uncovered. We in Kenya, more than most, should know this.

One of the best things the Narc government did in its early days was to allow the media to get on with their work unhindered: of asking questions, poking their noses everywhere, raising issues, giving a voice to the common Kenyan. This clamour mattered: it brought Kenyans out from their slumber, and they began adding their voice to the sound of the crowd, and briefly, a newfound harmony was heard in the land.

I wrote about the importance of this new openness in 2003: “There is debate where previously there was dissent. There is discussion where previously there was despair. Discourse has replaced discord. It is worth contributing, worth participating, worth belonging again. And to its credit, the Narc government has given free rein to this new openness, this new participation. Even when the chatter is negative and the conclusions cynical, the government has allowed the debates to carry on. Kenyans have come to believe that freedom of speech is possible, that radical opinions need not land you in detention or worse. This freedom must be protected at all costs: it will provide the cornerstone of our development for generations to come.”

But it didn’t last, did it? The seemingly tolerant government soon began seeing the media as a monumentally large pain in the backside. I mean, do these press people stop at nothing? They come to check who owns the companies that win government tenders, and have no compunction in printing the fact that it is the minister presiding over the tender who is behind the curtain. They take that dangerous fellow Githongo’s hysterical report and place it in full public view. Their cartoonists ridicule us every single day. And the columnists? Don’t even start on those. Opinionated, arrogant and openly critical of everything the government does. Can’t be allowed to carry on, surely!

And so the crackdown started. It started mildly, with debate and discourse – does the media industry need more regulation? Is cross-ownership of print and electronic media a good thing? Should there be limits on how much of the media any one party can own? All of those were sensible questions that needed to be debated, and we had begun to understand the issues and devise some solutions.

Then came the Standard raid. In one horrific night, the government lost any shred of credibility it still had in promoting an open society. Computers were grabbed, newspapers were burned, journalists were threatened. In one stroke, the mask came off and the face beneath was not a friendly one. The message had been sent: proceed at your own peril.

The post-hoc justifications of that calamitous night continue today. The media are irresponsible; they are in the pocket of the opposition; they promote ethnic hatred; they abuse the freedoms they have been granted. Government must protect the simple folk from these vipers. The press must be controlled in the interests of development – an amazing inversion of reality.

Any sane person considering this proposition would immediately come up with some pointed questions? Was it the media that gave guns, passes and authority to the “Artur brothers”, and allowed them to run riot as they pleased? No, the people in charge managed that one all on their own.

Was it the press that engaged in massively inflated contracts with phantom firms and shrouded them in secrecy in the name of ‘national interest’? No, the Anglo-Leasing affair did not require the help of journalists – the perpetrators ran that scam all by themselves.

Is it journalists who are unable to provide even a basic modicum of intelligent regulation in this country, so that scores of innocents perish every week in entirely preventable road accidents, fires and building collapses? Nope, that inadequacy is achieved most eminently by government, all by itself.

Here’s the important point: none of the things listed above were initiated by the media; but every single one of them was investigated, exposed and highlighted by them. If the media had not revealed all, these matters would be going on unchecked even today. We would be a lesser nation – one in which abuse of power, plunder, incompetence and infantile behaviour would still reign unchallenged.

So let us thank our media, not condemn them. Media channels have given us all a voice and a say. We are better than we could be because we nurture and sustain the right of a free press to investigate any damn thing it likes.

Of course we could have a better media industry in this country. We could have one in which there is less concentration of power, and more diverse outlets and points of view. We could have a press that rises above silly materiality and plays a more informative role in boosting economic development. We could have higher reporting standards and fewer goofs.

We can still have all those things, if two things happen: a recognition, again, of the sanctity of media freedom; and a proper, informed debate on the role and limitations of the media industry in this country. But nothing is possible when media houses are raided; when editors are browbeaten; when threats of draconian regulation are heard every day.

It is your right to partake in this debate and to shape it. But never forget: media freedom is not negotiable. If the ‘eyes’ disappear, the milk will be stolen and so will the donations box. If we close up our society again, the darkness is waiting to re-embrace us.

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