The recent shakeup in the banking industry that was orchestrated by the collapse of Chase Bank has brought up arguments pitying Mainstream Media in Kenya against New Media. This is because the New Media which is largely unregulated and answerable to no one has decided to pursue what I would call “amateurish investigative journalism” where New Media users obtain sensitive information and publish them “as received” via social media and blogging platforms. The Government and Mainstream Media in Kenya have been threatened by this trend and as a result have decided to fight the New Media using diverse tactics.
The Government is threatened by New Media since it can longer control the type and nature of content the public consumes. In the days when the only channels for disseminating information to the public was through a few select Media Houses, the Government had the ability to control what the Media Houses publish by:
- Enacting legislation to gag the Media
- Befriend the bosses and owners of the few Media Houses e.g. by giving them tea in State House
- Threaten to withdraw Government sponsored advertisements if items 1 and 2 do not work.
In the era of New Media, unless the Government blacks out New Media completely as has happened in China, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam, North Korea and Turkey, it is impossible for the Government to implement item 1 even if it had the leeway to enact legislation intended to gag the New Media. This is because the millions of New Media users are each potential content generators and creators whom the Government cannot cripple by withdrawal non-existent advertisements.
Given the hurdles of controlling New Media, the Government is left with a few cards to play, one of which includes arresting users of New Media thought to be the first to disseminate sensitive information. This has happened several times with bloggers such as Robert Alai, Yassin Juma and many others getting arrested. The fact that almost 100% of the arrests never lead to convictions means that by and large the Government arrest these bloggers because it is threatened by New Media.
The second tactic the Government is using is to accuse New Media as peddling rumours, false information, and malicious gossip that can lead to the collapse of the economy. What amazes me is not the fact that the Government is employing this tactic, but that there are millions of Kenya who actually believe the Government that rumours in New Media can lead to an economic catastrophe. In the free world like Europe and the US, bloggers and satire news site peddle gossip, rumours, false information and malice each day about Politicians, Banks, and Celebrities on an hourly basis and none of them ever get victimised on the outcome of political and economic events in their respective countries. In Kenya we heard that the Government had arrested blogger David Zawadi to face charges of spreading false and malicious information about the banking industry, even though the so called malicious rumours about Chase Bank was finally validated as factual information.
Lastly, the Government has employed the tactic of using their own bloggers to generate information or misinformation to either influence public perception to be favourable with the Government, or discredit any anti-Government “propaganda” doing rounds in New Media. To this end, the Government employed some 36 bloggers to be its eye and mouth piece useful in counteracting any alleged propaganda against the Government .
As much as the Government is threatened by New Media, the Mainstream Media in Kenya is threatened even the more. This is because New Media has diverted attention away from the Mainstream Media leading to a massive decline in readership of Newspapers, viewership of TV Channels, and audience of Radio Channels. The impact of the shift means advertisement money has also shifted (though not with an equal magnitude) from the Mainstream Media to the New Media. In an article we published in July 2014, we revealed why online is better than TVs for Kenyan advertisers by showing that by that time over 21.6 million Kenyans were audience of the New Media with an approximated 13.2 million people being active New Media users on a daily basis. The Mainstream Media on the other hand had only 654,500 active weekly audience. According to a PcW report on how Digital Media is fueling Kenya’s entertainment and Media industry summarized by CapitalFM in September 2015, “Internet advertising will see the fastest growth rate at a CAGR of 16.8 per cent” in 2016.
The growth of New Media at the expense of Mainstream Media in Kenya has threatened the Mainstream Media to the bones, forcing the Mainstream Media to partner with the Government to wage a war against the New Media; and as the Internet audience continue to grow and the Mainstream Media audience Kenya continue to dwindle, we expect this war to grow bigger and bitter in the foreseeable future.
The hatred the Mainstream Media in Kenya has over New Media is further entrenched by the fact that Mainstream Media decided to sleep in the same bed with the Government almost every night. As has already mentioned, today’s advertising landscape is witnessing a shift from Mainstream Media to New Media, and the only sure customer the Mainstream Media can rely on is the Government. According to an insider in one of the major Media Houses, money from the Government today accounts for more than 60% of Newspaper revenues, and if the Government were to stop placing advertisements on Newspapers, then the sector would effectively be crippled.
The Government being majority customer to the Newspaper outlets explains why the Mainstream Media in Kenya has been unwilling to carry out thorough and effective investigative journalism that would shed light on Government’s shadowy dealings and true economic performance. Because the Government is the hand the Mainstream Media in Kenya eats from, Mainstream Media has been unable to publish information that would have major impacts on citizens’ perception about the Government – favorable or otherwise.
The laxity with which the Mainstream Media has on publishing well investigated reports on corruption, human right issues, and the true performance of the economy is easily seen by how they avoid to name names whenever they publish a “bad” story; and how they easily fire editors, cartoonists and journalists who dare take risks in bold and fearless journalism. The unwillingness of the Mainstream Media to be bold and true has forced many whistleblowers in Government and Private sector to not trust them with critical information but instead trust certain individuals that have taken leadership in the New Media. I very much believe that if the Panama Papers was somehow connected to Kenya, the whistleblower who trusted the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with the 11.5 million sensitive files could not at all have trusted a Mainstream Media in Kenya with those files.
The Mainstream Media is indeed facing a serious challenge. Their assured source of income is the Government and as such they do not want to do anything that will piss of the big guy. On the other hand, New Media is taking away the audience they badly need to remain in business.
This is what I would advise the Mainstream Media in Kenya to do; since they have adequate resources to do proper journalism that New Media cannot match, they should decide to suffer a few months and focus in gaining the trust of the audience and whistleblowers. They must go back to being the watchdogs they ought to be, to being the guardians of our public resources, and being the platform from where Kenyans can learn a great deal about nationhood, patriotism, justice, rich history, economic development, ideological politics, analytical commentary, and factual opinions. Since they stopped doing data based, research founded and investigative oriented journalism, the Mainstream Media in Kenya has resorted to gossip through popularization of gossip portals like Mpasho and eDaily, publishing articles from intellectually bankrupt Kenyans who have nothing to write about except to insult Kenyans, and copy pasting Press Releases from Corporate PR firms.
If the Mainstream Media in Kenya does not make a turn around to reclaim its rightful position, then it should set itself up to be swallowed by the New Media.