The Media Policy Research Centre recently asked some very well recognized names in Kenyan media scholarship to give a definitive look back at the history of the media sector.
The compendium, Exploring Kenya’s Media Policy Landscape: 1963 – 2013, is a valuable asset: they survey a huge swath of what’s been written on Kenyan media (the bibliographies alone are a great resource).
I read it expecting to take stock of what it is that we can say with certainty about what drives the sector, and was surprised to come away from it with a sense that we understand far too little (the compendium also betrays a long-standing bias in Kenyan media research towards a political economy perspective, largely ignoring theory from cultural studies – an issue I won’t even begin to address here).
So what follows is one piece of received wisdom from the first generation of Kenyan media scholars, and just a few (truly just a few) of the many unresolved questions that next generation may have to answer.
Received wisdom: all governments are enemies of free press
The authors remind us that Kenya has not yet had an administration that was truly committed to media freedom; they may have paid lip service to it, but they have tried through means direct and indirect to undermine it.
The raid on the Standard in March 2006 was carried out by the administration that had prevailed over one-party rule, and Kibaki himself assented in 2008 to the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill, which provided for heavy fines and even prison sentences for press offences.
Everyone is for a free press when they are in the opposition, it seems. Agreed. We must always look for power, but where power resides, how it works, and what it accomplishes may have changed more than some of the authors acknowledge.
Unanswered question: how much power do administrations still wield over press policy?
It is misleading, for example, to suggest that change has only been in appearance. Every Kenyan government since independence may very well have shared the same aspiration (to have a media that serves their power and interest), but they most certainly do not have the same means when it comes to media policy.
To begin with, Parliament has been increasingly independent since the formation of permanent committees at the end of the Moi regime; perhaps they have not expressed this independence on matters of media regulation, but we need to account for the continued complicity in some way, and not take a monolithic government as taken for granted. How is their complicity secured, and can it (will it) be broken?
And let us not forget that the Supreme Court just struck down the provisions of the anti-terrorism law that most threatened to stifle press coverage. Power in Kenya’s media policy landscape is more diffuse than it used to be.
Unanswered question: what difference are new institutions making?
The rise of the Kenyan Media Owners Association and the evolution of the Media Council of Kenya too has been significant, but the authors of the report seem at a loss to specify just how significant these developments are, or could be. For example, do we know whether the Media Council of Kenya fighting the good fight? If not, do we know for certain what’s compromising it? If it is up for a fight, is it equal to the challenge? The compendium has a chapter detailing the important work done by civil society and alternative media, but what I want to know is what history tells us about how to effectively organize to influence Kenyan media for the better. It seems to me that the Media Policy Research Centre should be especially interested in this question; and we need a reasoned answer that can respond to the more cynical views.
Unanswered question: what is the relationship between government policy and commercial pressures in the media sector?
It is also ironic that one of the chapters in the compendium remarks upon the rise of “hyper-commercialisation” of Kenyan media, without considering how this relates to the thesis put forward in the preceding chapter that media policy is driven solely by short-term political expediency. I’m familiar with the standard approach to soliciting different perspectives on an issue for such a compendium, but it’s unfulfilling for something intended to be so definitive.
Surely, the rising commercialism has some implications for how administrations (try to) exert control over media policy; so what is the relationship between commercialism and political control over the media? And in answering this question, can we be more critical about whether Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda theory really fit well in Kenya? Empirical work on the political economy in East Africa is still paltry in comparison to the work that’s been on that topic in southern Africa for example; let’s not assume too much.
Unanswered question: how does new media change the equation of everything else?
It is telling that social media gets its own chapter in the compendium (written by a new-generation researcher), yet is scarcely mentioned anywhere else – even though the influence of new media is so cross-cutting. Previously, in “Kenya: Diffusion, Democracy and Development,” Mary Muiruri made a compelling case that the liberalization of telecoms sector and democratization of policy-making in the sector have gone hand in hand. Even if one is not entirely convinced by Muiruri’s arguments, given convergence, digital migration, and the rise of alternative media on-line, etc., one way or another we must answer the question of how digital technologies might change the media landscape – and in ways that are fundamental to the politics, policies and economics behind it.
There are so many more questions, but I will stop here. Look, it’s possible that I’m overly sensitive given that I’ve been an outsider looking in over the past four years or so, but on occasion I have had my ideas contested by one of the gate-keepers of Kenyan media scholarship who illustrates his expertise (usually his) by recounting in detail the history of this or that.
History is vitally important for understanding the present. As any student should, I eagerly listen to and read these histories when I have the opportunity. But I’m beginning to wonder whether these same scholars have been looking at the history books for so long that they can no longer face the future. We need fresh eyes.