Friday, January 16, 2009



“Enhancing free speech, free thought, transparency and accountability in our governance systems”

By Jerry Okungu

Throughout history, the role of the press has been to play the public watchdog against excesses of our rulers, be they judges, kings, presidents, parliamentarians or even the men of the cloth.

Being a public watchdog, it means the media can and indeed bark more than they can bite. Their role is to arouse the masses from their slumber that there is an intruder trying to steal what belongs to them. Once they have barked, either the thief runs away or the masses rise up to confront the thief.

A vibrant and responsible Press should strive to strengthen the Judiciary, Parliament, the Executive and other public institutions by prodding them to walk the talk, travel the narrow and straight path in keeping their covenant with the public rather than struggle to bring them down.

An objective press is not necessarily compromised. It earns respect both ways by pointing to the king that the king is actually naked.

A responsible Press criticizes itself first, then others (the CSOs, Corporate Enterprises, and then state organs). This is the only way the media can lay claim to objectivity, transparency and fairness.

More often than not; the press focuses on the political class or the mundane gory details of our sexuality and violence in our societies at the expense of other goings on in our midst, leaving equally dangerous operators to get away with murder

How about the Media in our region and the East African Community?
Has the Media in East Africa helped the East African Community to grow stronger and get better? Or has it been preoccupied with petty parochial politics back home at the expense of major Governance and Democratic transformations taking place in East Africa and the rest of Africa?

How much interaction is there among media players in our region? Apart from the Nation Media Group, how many media houses have deliberately opened and are operating news bureaus in all capitals in the East African Community to monitor these political, economic and social transformations across our borders?
How informed are we of the structures and operations of the EAC major institutions?
Have we been more useful or destructive to the institutions of the EAC?
How dangerous can media partisanship and fanatical nationalism be to the survival of the East African Community?

Too often we tend to be more critical of our own than others orgnizations around us?
When have we rallied behind our politicians to derail the programmes of the Community when it suits us for parochial nationalistic reasons?
When have we intentionally campaigned for the EAC democratic and governance institutions to be strengthened for the benefit of the people of our region?

When have we challenged our national governments to cede some powers so that we can streamline our electoral, judicial and service delivery mechanisms with uniform ethics and codes of conduct for Member States to prevent unnecessary civil strife as we have witnessed in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda in the recent past? When have the media campaigned for member states in our region to be their brothers’ keepers?

Media Convergence and Borderlessness reclaiming its own freedom
Because of new technologies popping out faster than we can imagine, governments all over the world are finding it increasingly difficult to gag the media because information now flows in all directions across the globe.

As it is now, I don’t have to sit in Dar es Salaam to write a paper for Tanzanians. I can choose to sit in Nairobi, Kigali or New York and deliver to you on you laptop or mobile phone the entire story at your fingertips.

However, this capability has not deterred those regimes that are bent on controlling the press. At times the crudeness of the method can be terrifying. Cases of journalists or media houses being intimidated and threatened with dire consequences if they dare report adversely on the political class are abundant.
We have so many examples in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda not to mention Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Senegal and Zimbabwe

Press Freedom and other freedoms is a balancing the act. It can never be absolute in the best of times even in the most democratic states. True press freedom recognizes its limits to individual freedoms and privacy. It does not go out of its way to hurt one’s feelings or reputation for the sake of it. It falls on the practitioner of this liberty to exercise it with responsibility and caution. To be cautious is not to be a coward. It simply means weighing all the facts before writing the story.

Press freedom, freedom of speech and civil liberties should not just be limited to our physical well being. Other freedoms such as freedom from hunger, poverty, diseases and ignorance are just as important in a democratic and well managed society.

A nation that is full of poor, hungry and ignorant population cannot claim to be democratic. It is the responsibility of the media to use every avenue to educate the masses about these rights to food, security, shelter, education and health.
In a democratic society, delivery of services for which citizens pay taxes is critical.

People should not die for lack of medicine or medical staff in our village clinics.
People should not die in our villages because roads and bridges have fallen apart due to bureaucratic neglect.
Our children should not learn under trees and sit on stones with hardly any facilities when in fact we pay taxes to our local authorities.

These are the freedoms and rights that the media can fight for to strengthen our good governance and democratic institutions.

As we fight for these rights and freedoms that we are entitled to, let us balance out these rights of the individual against other rights- of the state and other members of society because any right cannot be absolute or superior to the others; it must coexist with other group rights

Other groups have the right to be respected and recognized. They have rights to their space and privacy that the law in society recognizes

The state also enjoys some rights to govern us according to the mandate given to it by its citizens and the laws of the land. These rights allow it to restrain or punish those that break the law.

Good Governance, Democracy and the just government of men and women implies that the use of state resources, institutions and state instruments of power must be done responsibly on behalf of and with the mandate of the citizenry. It cannot be an arbitrary and flagrant application at the whims of those that hold these instruments.

When it comes to Good Governance, who designs and defines this good governance philosophy? Can the State design, define and execute good governance practices on behalf the people when in fact it is keen on controlling the very masses?

Can Democracy be a right or a privilege in a society such as ours? Can a poor, starving and barefoot villager appreciate the meaning of democracy? When we talk of democracy, who are we addressing or have in mind?

Good governance and democratic trends in East Africa:

The story of Tanzania’s Ujamaaism, Kenya’s capitalist system and Uganda’s Common Man’s Charter is the story of the struggle to democratize our society and bring about good governance in our societies in the post- colonial era. The goal has been one; the methodology and philosophical interpretations have been different.

Whether it was Nyerere grouping Tanzanians into villages or Kenyatta asking people to pull together under Harambee or Obote imploring Ugandans to adopt the Common Man’s Charter; each one of them had the Mwananchi at the center of his philosophy.
Whether they succeeded or failed to deliver services to the principal character in their manifestos is another matter.

As the media, it is our duty to glean what has been, learn from our mistakes and urge the current leadership to avoid the same pitfalls that made Nyerere, Obote and Kenyatta fail to deliver.

Is Press freedom in Peril in Africa? - Ripples in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, and Rwanda tell the story more vividly than I can ever do in this forum. However, if the Media is asking the political establishment for accountability, how accountable is the Media?

My experience in reading the African Peer Review Mechanism reports in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique and even South Africa tells a different story.
It just goes to show how the rot that we so love to talk about in our societies has consumed us all. We are as guilty as the next traffic policemen or the court clerk thriving on petty handouts from petty offenders.

Can the Media bridge the information gap between our governors in the region and the citizenry? Yes it can if it applies the basic principles of accountability, transparency and objectivity in the discharging of its duties.

This fairplay is the single most important contribution the Media can offer in strengthening our governance and democratic institutions.