Thursday, September 20, 2007

Two kinds of journalism

I've been following developments in the South African media for two main reasons. I was in the country recently, and I think it is among the most vibrant media scenes in the continent.

In looking at the SA media, I find interesting parallels with my country.

There are two kinds of journalism brought out by SABC's grouse with the South African Editor's Forum (Sanef). Guy Berger, the Rhodes University journalism lecturer (pictured) discusses the two kinds of journalism - there are others, e.g development journalism - and explains why the SABC and Sanef should complement rather than fight each other. Click here for the full article).

Berger argues that SABC sees itself as playing a civil service role by acting as a "responsible" player in nation-building and promoting the "national interest". It seeks to do that, he says, not necessarily by becoming a pure government mouthpiece.

That is one kind of journalism. In Kenya, there are parallels in the role played by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Although SABC is semi-public, KBC is government-owned. Like SABC, KBC also plays a civil service role, but I seem to forget what it has done in nation building and promoting national interest that did not have government propaganda in it.

The other kind of journalism that Berger describes is the watchdog role, the critical and more assertive one played by private media. He says: "The SABC's civil-service model stresses information and education; the watchdog approach challenges the establishment and promotes exposure. A society needs both functions -- they are complementary contributions to development and democracy."

Here too there is a parallel with Kenya. The country's private media, mainly the Nation and The Standard, have played a key watchdog role.. It hasn't always been so, for only in 2002 did The Standard assume a patently anti-establishment role. Previously, it associated itself with former President Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the country for 24 years.

In the regime of Moi's predecessor, President Jomo Kenyatta, it would be tenuous to claim The Standard was anti-establishment. That role was played more by the Nation, which identified itself with the masses, especially during the Moi years. The Standard, established in 1902, had pandered to the whims of the colonialists and increasingly alienated the majority indigenous Kenyan population until the entry of the Nation in the early 1960s.

But of late, the media in Kenya have taken a strange turn. While the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, previously known as the Voice of Kenya, attempted to wriggle free from the presidential stranglehold, the Nation and the Standard remained skeptical at first. In good time, KBC snuggled itself back into the presidency's bosom and promptly fell asleep in its old ways.

Not to be outdone, the Nation is increasingly perceived as more and more pro-establishment. From a Kenyan newsgroup comes the following quote:

While The Kenya Times and The Standard are expected to tilt their frames in accordance with their political owners predilictions, the factors that come into play at Nation Media Group are more complex. Though the Nation is not exempt from proprietary interference, its owners are not members of the political establishment as are those of the other three dailies. However, the ethnic identity of its top management which is preponderantly from central Kenya explains its editorial shift from a paper that generously provided the limelight to the opposition forces during Moi's tenure, to one that has taken a steady pro-establishment stance after Kibaki's ascent to the presidency
(From website as at September 21, 2007).

That quote tells a lot. While private media do not have a confron relationship with KBC, they do not agree on many things, e.g the portrayal of President Kibaki or his main challenger for the presidency, Raila Odinga.

The Standard is perceived mainly as anti-establishment, especially after the police raided it in March 2006. (You can watch it here)

The Nation too suffered its own woes in the hands of the First Lady, Lucy Kibaki, who "raided" it in the night with a copy of The Standard! Watch that here.

As Kenya approaches elections in December, more and more events will reveal where the media in Kenya stand, and what role they are willing to play in journalism.

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