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Friday, February 20, 2015

Why The Media Is Losing The Digital Migration Debate

For nearly a week now, three of Kenya’s major privately-owned TV stations have been off air due to a row with the industry regulator over migration to a digital platform. The stations, NTV, Citizen TV and KTN, which together account for the vast majority of TV viewership in the country (they claim up to 90 percent), have had a long running and convoluted battle with the Communications Authority essentially demanding a license to broadcast their own content as opposed to handing it over to the two carriers the government has licensed.

It is said that truth is often the first casualty of war. This has been no exception. As both sides have sought to sway public opinion to their cause, honesty and objectivity have been tossed out the window. On the one hand, the government has tried to paint it as a fight to tame intransigent, monopolistic-minded media companies scared of the level field that comes with digital migration. On the other, the companies have portrayed it as a struggle against a deaf, authoritarian-minded regime intent on auctioning off national resources to the Chinese (one of the licensed carriers is Chinese).

While there has been more than enough mud to go round, and though the incompetence of the regulator is hard to ignore, it is clear that the TV companies seem to be coming off worst. The are probably two reasons for this. Most Kenyans don't watch TV and those that do have a hard time trusting the media.

Let's start with the latter. The merits of it's case aside,  government’s propaganda has tapped into a rich vein of distrust and contempt for the media, one that, ironically, has grown out of the fraternity’s uncritical embrace of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration.

The Kenyan press is struggling with the legacy of its anodyne reporting during the flawed 2013 election and subsequent reluctance to challenge the official narrative and government conduct on most issues and events. These include during the President’s trial at the International Criminal Court, the responses to terrorist attacks, including the attack on the Westgate Mall and the targeting of the Somali and Muslim communities, as well as the continuing demonization of civil society. Further, the TV stations' fascination with Mexican soaps and Nigerian movies, when most television consumers are mainly interested in the news, cannot do their reputation much good.

The media"s one-sided reporting of the digital migration impasse has not helped matters. Journalists have seemed either unable or unwilling to separate the interests of media conglomerates from those of the public. On the contrary, they have simply tried to sell the company line as the national cause. This is not new. Research carried out in 2012 found that “the line between media owners and editors has increasingly been blurred as the latter are co-opted into the formers’ domain, meaning the editors no longer exclusively pursue professionalism.”

If poll numbers are to be believed, public trust in the media is very brittle. Over three years ago when one survey found 77 percent of respondents saying they trusted the media. Just four months after the 2013 election, this had dropped to 46 percent before rising to 68 percent in November and collapsing again to 43 percent in March last year. The lesson here? Public trust is a commodity the Kenyan media takes for granted at its peril. As Peter Oborne recently wrote in his resignation statement as chief political commentator of the UK’s Telegraph: “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. [The media has a] duty to tell … the truth.”

The other reason the TV companies are losing this is that most of the country doesn't watch TV. “Starve the city dwellers and they riot; starve the peasants and they die. If you were a politician, which would you choose?" asked an aid-worker in Lloyd Timberlake’s 1988 book, Africa in Crisis. The current “crisis” has proven that not all audiences are created equal. Some matter more than others.

A relatively small, TV-owning minority punches above its weight in political terms. Two-thirds of Kenyan households do not actually own a television set, but politicians are scrambling to cater to the needs of the one-third that do, even altering their calendars to accommodate them. The launch of the OKOA Kenya campaign, for example, has been postponed until the standoff is resolved, with opposition leader, Raila Odinga, declaring “There can be no amendment of the constitution without the people and their can be no people without the media."

The fact is, despite radio being far and away the main source of news for the vast majority of Kenyans, the fact is TV is king in urban areas. The medium has overthrown the newspaper as the mediator of elite political discourse in the country. 

For the rest of the country, the promise of impressive clarity and variety is largely empty. Debates about cost and availability of set-top boxes are largely irrelevant for the 70 percent of the population who cannot even afford TV sets and the 80 percent who have no electricity to run them on. As Eng Francis Wangusi, the Director-General of the Communications Authority said recently, “If somebody can buy and maintain a TV in their house, that person is not poor.” He could have added that most Kenyans are poor.

Beyond what the media have got wrong, perhaps we as a country should consider expanding the scope of the discussion beyond just digital TV migration. According to one survey, by 2011, 93 percent of Kenyan households owned a mobile phone. Maybe the phone could do for TV what it has done for money transfer and banking. Mobile TV could allow the poor to access the digital TV services that are now slated to be the preserve of a lucky few. So instead of only talking about STBs, digital transmitters and distribution licenses, perhaps our tech and policy wonks could also spend some of the time debating the merits of providing affordable mobile TV to all.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saving Kenya From Its Elites Will Take More Than A New Constitution

In an article last month, economist Dr David Ndii expounded on the changes that the country’s 2010 constitution has rung in as well as the reduced opportunities for extraction of rents. He opined that the imperial presidency, traditionally the bane of Kenya’s democracy, had been effectively dismantled and that devolution had dramatically reduced the payoffs for corruption if not exactly ensured accountability. “There just aren’t that many large carcasses for all the big ravenous hyenas in Nairobi. The cheese has moved. The rats have not. They slept through the revolution,” he wrote.

However, recent actions by the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta demonstrate that not only have the rats refused to acknowledge the revolution, they are actively undermining it and re-instituting the networks and power relationships that have sustained them for over half a century.

It is not the first time this has happened.

Just before independence in 1963, the country adopted a new constitution that similarly sought to constrain the power of the governing elites. A 1992 paper by Prof Githu Muigai, now the country’s Attorney General, explained what followed. "The colonial order had been one monolithic edifice of power that did not rely on any set of rules for legitimization. When the Independence constitution was put into place it was completely at variance with the authoritarian administrative structures that were still kept in place by the entire corpus of public law. Part of the initial amendments therefore involved an attempt - albeit misguided - to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded."

Similarly, over the past few weeks, the country has seen legislation introduced which reverses many of the democratic gains enshrined in the constitution. Growing intolerance has seen laws enacted by the colonial regime to stop the independence movement employed to prosecute two bloggers for insulting President Kenyatta, with one sentenced to a two-year jail term.

Just as his father, founding President, Jomo Kenyatta, progressively downgraded the independence constitution and to recreate the colonial edifice, so today Uhuru Kenyatta is engaged in the process of undermining the 2010 constitution and once again concentrating power within the walls of one office and in the hands of one man.

However, the first President Kenyatta would not have accomplished his fete without the acquiescence and support of the rest of the power elite who were rewarded with opportunities to corruptly enrich themselves. Similarly today, his son needs the help of his fellow elites to reconstitute the system of autocratic kleptocracy and patronage that was perfected by jomo Kenyatta’s successor, President Daniel arap Moi. And that help has not been short in coming.

Dr Ndii reckons the constitution has stripped the Presidency of 80-90 percent of its power and that today the President has to exercise what’s left through influence and not authority. However, that does not appear to be the way things are actually working out. With his coalition controlling both houses, the President faces little opposition from a Parliament that appears more concerned about taking full advantage of opportunities to fleece the public. The hurried and chaotic passage of the security law, along with the Senate’s acquiescence in its own marginalisation, demonstrated just how much it has been transformed into a paper tiger. The judiciary has fared little better. From the craven Supreme Court judgement over the 2013 presidential election to the inaction over regular infringements of its orders, the judiciary has proven itself to be unwilling to court Executive displeasure.

Ditto the National Police Service. After decades of doing the executive’s dirty political work instead of actually protecting the public, one might have expected that they might revel in some independence. One would be wrong. And even before the passage of the security law, there was already a concerted effort to bring the service back under the ambit of the Executive.

The fact is, the constitution may have prescribed a weaker presidency, but when the institutions that are meant to check its power instead opt to collude with it, it can be pretty powerful. Especially as a conduit for and dispenser of patronage, the traditional role the imperial presidency has played for the political elite. And true to form, President Kenyatta has kept the gravy train rolling.

On his watch, government mega-projects, whether it is the dubious $13 billion standard gauge railway or the stalled $200 million project to provide laptops to primary school students, or the nearly $400 million single-sourced national surveillance system, have all been tinged with scandal and controversy. Just a year after his inauguration, the President authorised the payment of nearly $17 million to two shell companies, part of the Anglo Leasing scam which cost the country over $600 million. And just recently came revelations that the government had silently prepared legislation prohibiting public scrutiny of its spending on the military, intelligence and police, after the Auditor General raised queries on $100 million in expenditure and cash transfers from the Ministry of Defence. And as poachers decimate the country’s elephants and rhinos, at least one investigative report showed that the government not only knew who they were but actually provided protection to the kingpins.

Following independence, it took Jomo Kenyatta a few years to dismantle the constitutional restraints on the Presidency. His son seems to have taken up the task with gusto. Like his father, he argues that the authoritarian powers are necessary. On the other hand, Dr Ndii believes that the orgy of looting that is underway is actually “an unintended and transient consequence of [the constitution’s] effectiveness.” However what remains abundantly clear that, it will take more than a new constitution to save Kenya from its rapacious elites.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Being African Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

When the prolific columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wrote that the International Criminal Court “had finally made Kenya an African country” he meant that the government’s reaction to the trials had aligned the country more closely with policies in much of the rest of the continent. I think there is another, perhaps more profound, sense in which Kenyans have become Africans.

To begin with, I have always been uncomfortable with the notion of “Africa”. It has not been apparent to me what, apart from an overabundance of pigmentation, I am supposed to possess in common with most of the other billion or so residents of the second-largest continent. And far from simply describing people from a place, the term “African” has come to imply some sort of historical, metaphysical and supra-cultural bond, which is loaded with all sorts of flattering and not-so-flattering stereotypes.

Sadly, many of my fellow Africans have been content to reflect and enact the tropes of Africanness. A favourite one is that of the “African Big Man.” No, I don’t mean of the well-hung variety, but rather the kleptocratic and genocidal tyrant-for-life who nonetheless commands the unquestioning loyalty of his tribal folk because their only goal in life is the extermination of their ethnic rivals.

The African Union has become an unfailing mirror of these reflections. At Its summits, the continent’s Big Men (and few Big Women), regularly get together, it seems, to commit ever more outrages on our common sensibilities. At Kenya’s instigation, last year’s pow-wow in June in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, voted to expand the jurisdiction of the yet-to-be-established African Court of Justice and Human Rights to cover international crimes, with the caveat that the Big Men as well as their senior government pals would be immune from prosecution while they remain in office. The move was meant to deliver Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, from the clutches of the ICC. And it was welcomed by their fellow Big Men who are wont to remain in office for rather longer than their subjects can reasonably expect or tolerate.

Any idea of accountability in this life is an anathema. Kenya today provides an excellent example of the state continually frustrating any attempt to punish either current or former government officials or their misdeeds. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which named almost every star in the country’s political firmament, seems to have met its end in the National Assembly where it went to be “improved” by the very people it mentioned adversely.

As a result, Kenya’s two fabulously wealthy and still-breathing ex-presidents, Mwai Kiabaki and Daniel arap Moi continue to live lavishly on the public purse despite widespread reporting, countless commissions of inquiry as well as interminable police investigations concluding that their tenures were characterised by officially sanctioned murder and theft. None of their senior officials have been pursued either. On the contrary, the current administration has simply picked up where they left off. In fact, during the most recent AU summit, the Kenya government maintained its single-minded determination to ensure that African potentates never again have to endure the prospect of facing justice.

And a new crop of leaders is learning just how useful this “Big Man” syndrome can be. Recently, two first-time legislators were caught on camera at a weighbridge trying to throw their weight around and intimidate police. The problem? A truck belonging to one of them had been impounded for not having the necessary paperwork. In less than two years, they have learnt, that in the Big Man tradition, the rules don’t apply to them.

Of course impunity has always been a large part of Kenya’s story. But with our support for the government's exertions at the AU, we appear to have thrown our hat in with that community of nations that defines itself solely in terms of its powerlessness. A site of perpetual victimhood, of constant and exhausting struggle against imperialism and colonisation. A place of contradiction where the foreign-funded AU can, without the slightest appreciation of the irony, declare that the equally foreign-funded ICC, where its members constitute the largest block, with an African prosecutor and judges, is a tool of imperialists.

By becoming Africans, Kenyans have accepted to be faceless, nameless victims. To have a cheap and expendable existence. To live at and for the pleasure of Big Men. To repudiate “foreign” notions of accountability. We have accepted that the continent should first deliver for the powerful, before it delivers for the multitude. If that sounds familiar, it is because it should be. To become an African is to go back to the roots of Africanness. To don the costume of moral and material backwardness spun for the continent by the Big Men from Europe who were determined to subjugate it and who have since been replaced by our home grown varieties. It is, in short, to accept our place at the bottom of the human pile.