Press freedom and bittersweet tears

Thursday May 06 2021
Obbo pic

Journalists in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, march during a procession to mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2021. Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

World Press Freedom Day came on May 3, and there were a lot of tears. The picture in the wider East Africa wasn’t pretty, with no country showing improvement in its press freedom standings.

It was part of a global decline in press freedom, with the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishing a report that said the slide has been hastened by repressive laws introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in only 12 countries in the world being deemed as having a “good” environment for the media. RSF also reported that nearly 75 per cent of countries blocked the media to some degree.

To make matters worse, the Covid-19 economic hit, adding to the considerable pain that disruptions and changing news consumption patterns of young people had also caused to the media. I have a few relatives scattered around the world, and I can never forget in 2019 when I was visiting with one of them, we the elders were in the living room watching an English Premier League match. My nephews were watching the same match in the next room, but it was a very different experience. They were following it on some app that was slicing the match in real-time and posting only the interesting clip, on a platform where other young people were chipping in with emojis and memes and snarky commentary. I looked at them, and I could see big red writing on the wall.

With all that, you’d think the media would get a break. But it isn’t. It is still being dragged to hell and back. Yet, I am not hysterical. I have a T-shirt with “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations”, the famous quote by British novelist, essayist, journalist and critic George Orwell printed on the front.

The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde had earlier offered a similar take on the subject, saying, “Speaking the truth that somebody wants you not to publish is journalism. Everything else is marketing.”

Therefore, with all the horrors of media repression, there is still something good in it. It’s proof that the media is doing serious journalism which matters, which powerful politicians, big institutions and organised interests don’t want the people to see. If the presidents and politicians are not denouncing and labelling you, “fake news”, blocking your journalists from covering certain events, and even throwing you in jail, you should not count your blessings. You should wonder if, perhaps, it isn’t because are only doing marketing and public relations.

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The problem is that journalists tackling the stories power wants to keep secret get killed, imprisoned, and media businesses can get shuttered in the process, leaving no journalism at all.

But it is also true that we live in an age where media is addicted to having it easy, and many journalists just aren’t ready to take the knocks their predecessors took.

From the beginnings of journalism, journalists were hated and despised. In the west in the 16th to 19th centuries, journalists were often not allowed to enter through the main door or even gate to the meetings or events where the important people of the day were gathered. We would be allowed in through the back door which the servants entered and the food deliveries were made.

Generations of journalists left a lot of blood on the floor to turn the business into the glamourous one it became in the last 100 years, where journalists are celebrities, a few have money, and they are sought after – but are also hunted down – by the world’s most powerful people. This success, ironically, has also become an albatross around the media’s neck. Good media will most likely find commercial success and become rich. However, when it is making these billions of shillings, its owners and shareholders are less willing to lose it and are more likely to bend over and appease politicians who are unhappy with independent reporting. But if they keep this up too long, eventually they will devalue themselves and become worthless to consumers, and lose the business.

A bright journalist who shot to the top and into fame, and who rocks up at a five-star in a Range Rover is more likely to compromise and not get in trouble, because falling from grace and losing all the trappings is too much. The one who arrives at the same hotel sweaty and in dusty shoes after a long walk is likely to be braver, and not worry too much about losing his celebrity status. However, the minister of Finance and a big bank or telco CEO is unlikely to take him seriously.

Media owners and journalists are caught in a complex situation. Heads up, they lose. Tails down, they lose.

In this environment, a lot of the criticism of a lack of media freedom is noble, but also simplistic and naïve. On the flip side, the criticism of the failures of journalism has merit, but equally simplistic and naïve.