Things are changing rapidly indeed for Kenya’s mainstream media. Long live the Fifth Estate.
Only a few months ago, we in the diaspora were hooked to the online versions of the major Kenyan dailies for news and information. With Europe and the USA 3-8 hours behind Kenya time, we would read Kenya’s next day’s papers before we retire to bed. That is now in the past. We do not rely on those papers any longer for news. There are many reasons for this change but chief among them is that they have lost their “professionalism”. They have become either too timid or too partisan. The recent general elections marked the last nail in their coffins. No news or news worth the name flowed. The dailies have followed our faith leaders in the race to the bottom.
Our fallback option used to be online broadcasts by our national television stations. We could watch, read, listen and react to Kenyan news. Like the daily newspapers, they too have either become too timid or too partisan. The recent general elections showed their callousness. As we craved for news about the elections, they were busy on political debates or showing some irrelevant programs. No newspaper or TV station could visit the 490 or so constituencies and under the protection of all the legal caveats show us the results as they were announced. None dared to tally votes or to project results. The difference from what we experience here in the USA was so glaring.
This is the digital age and an information vacuum cannot stand. Social media rightfully took over and spewed whatever it could. Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube etc. all went wild. We ran to them fully aware that theirs is a jungle: anybody is a writer, there are no editors, and no standards to govern them. The most active VOICES there are from the two political extremes and they inflame the web. Crooks know of this loophole and flood social media with fake news to influence perceptions. It is a chaotic exchange forum where each participant must judge what to believe. Things can get very awkward in this jungle. Savvy readers can balance reason, knowledge from elsewhere and what they expect to distinguish real from fake news. Those who are gullible swallow it all hook, line and sinker and tragically act on it. That is how solid communities disintegrate. Bad as it is, the alternative media served a necessity arising out of desperation. We ran to alternative media when information professionals failed us.
The emerging bloggers found a niche in this vacuum. They are known partisans and even hirelings. They proudly bend and peddle information for a political end. The fact that many Kenyans flock to them shows some have reached a point of irreconcilable disagreement. They thirst for anything, real or fake, that excites their political beliefs and gives them hope. Bloggers whet this appetite and have become household names with strong brands.
Fellow Kenyans, this is a sorry state we are in. It is in times of crisis that people know their professional institutions. Our information professionals have let us down. They have sacrificed the gems we valued most in them. They have delivered us at the altar of alternative media which finds us most gullible. They chew and spew us left, right and center. We can’t tell real from fake news. We sing our dirges at the unfortunate demise of professional journalism in Kenya. If any journalists still consider themselves professionals, now is the time for a deep soul searching to salvage whatever you can of Kenya’s mainstream media.
By Morrison A. Muleri, PhD