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Media Capture: How money and power is undermining journalism and democracy in Kenya and globally

A new book “In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy” reveals how  political figures and economic elites are colluding to undermine the independence of privately-owned media. IMAGE/COURTESY

After a few weeks of research and facts I have obtained, I have resolved to address myself to the state of the media in Kenya today.
I have decided to write this insight because many people including some journalists do not seem to know what is the problem with the media industry in this country today.
Just like what is happening elsewhere in the world, there’s a new anti-journalism and democracy monster in the world called media capture.
I want to delve into the topic of media capture, media financial engineering and threats to democracy in this country.
I have been inspired to write about these topics by two books, Power without Responsibility”, by Prof James Curran and Prof Jean Seaton and “In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracya compilation of essays by leading journalism scholars from US and Europe which has just been published.

In the new book published by the Center for International Media Assistance and Columbia University’s School of international and Public Affairs, the essays edited by Anya Schiffrin, media capture is shown to be a growing phenomenon linked both to the resurgence of authoritarian governments as well as to the structural weaknesses presently afflicting media markets.

In this environment, political figures and economic elites are colluding to undermine the independence of privately-owned media, and efforts to stop this collusion by activists, regulators, and the international community has proven to be ineffective.
If you want to know how media capture is working in Kenya today, you need to go back to retired President Mwai Kibaki’s era.
Just before the 2013 General Election, the media in Kenya was regarded in high esteem because, it was vibrant, it stood for public interest and the Kibaki administration did not have a media capture strategy in place.

Standard Media Group headquarters on Mombasa Road. The family of retired President Daniel Moi are the majority shareholders. PHOTO/COURTESY
But immediately the Jubilee administration came to power it contracted leading US and UK media companies including Cambridge Analytica and unleashed its blazing guns against the media by introducing new legislations aimed at curtailing media freedoms.
This legislations included the Media Act 2013, Kenya Information, Communication (admendment) Act 2013 and Security Laws (amendment) 2015 which President Uhuru Kenyatta promptly signed into law.
The media laws targeted the media with retrogressive clauses aimed at gagging the media.
The Security Laws (Amendment) Bill, perhaps the most contentious in the life of the 11th Parliament, had proposed that, among others, that police must approve publication or broadcasting of information relating to investigations on terrorism.
The Jubilee government then followed up with a scheme to deny media houses government advertising revenue through the establishment of a state controlled advertising agency called MyGov
Through MyGov, the government ensured that it had denied media houses more than 70 percent of their advertising revenue and forced them to accept a token Mygov insert in the local newspapers that did not earn them much.
Prof Curran and Prof Seaton show in their book Power without Responsibility”, that things are far more complex as far as advertising is concerned.
They say independence from the state has given way to a much harsher dependence on advertising.

“No longer “licensed” by the state, the media have been “licensed” by advertising. The decline of the progressive British press in the early 20th century is a clear example of how this system works,” they note.

And if you look at the media architecture in Kenya today, you will know how media capture works.  Although the leading media houses are publicly listed, influential politicians and businessmen are majority shareholders.
At the Standard Media Group, retired President Daniel Moi is the majority shareholder, Media Max Group that owns the People Daily and K24 is owned by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s family, Royal Media Services is owned by influential businessman S.K.Macharia while Radio Africa is chaired by businessman Kiprono Kittony.
According to research by South East European Media Observatory, “Financial engineering for state and media capture”, an analysis of the financial operations of the media in different countries points to a new dimension of financial engineering, which binds the issue of accountability in the functioning of media directly to the state.

The research paper says the state and its institutions, utilized by ruling political elites, are becoming the most significant factor in how corrupt relationships are shaped and protected in the media.

“Editorial boards and editors have taken on the role of inserting the interests of owners and major advertisers into the media content, which has led to a dangerous de-professionalisation of journalism, reducing it to a money-making enterprise rather than a service to public interest,” South East European Media Observatory research reveals.

This explains the current hue and cry by the opposition led National Super Alliance (Nasa) that leading media houses in the country favoured Jubilee Party during and after the nullified August 8, presidential election.
If you have been closely following the Jubilee media capture strategy, you must have noticed that in order to ensure the government had full control of the media industry in Kenya, companies associated with senior editors in leading media houses were given multi-million contracts by both the national and county governments.

Through this scheme, editor’s independence was curtailed through blackmail and that is why editors once known to be independent minded and fearless have today coiled their tails between their legs and busy building apartment blocks in different parts of Nairobi.

The concept of media integrity helps us understand and explain the workings of the economy of influence, in which media are one of the strongest trade currencies.

South East European Media Observatory research says that in the realm of the media and their operations, corruption must be explored as an abuse of power and as a violation of the public interest for private gain.

And I must add that the biggest threat to journalism in Kenyan today is not state or advertisers control, but having editors of publicly listed media houses deciding to use their influence to become tenderpreneurs or government tender-chasing businessmen instead of protecting public interest.

No journalist can hold the powerful accountable if he is a tenderpreneur. And that is why we have to ensure editorpreneurs have no place in Kenyan newsrooms.

The writer is the Editor-in-Chief at Next Generation Media Ltd.

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