Sunday, May 10, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
May 10, 2009

I read in a leading Uganda newspaper that the Uganda government has offered to fund the operations of the cash strapped Uganda Journalists Association.

Soon after, there was a news item in Kenya’s leading dailies that published amendments to the Communications Act had included government funding for Kenya Media Council, something that the Media Owners of Kenya hade violently opposed in 2008 when the bill was first published.

These are two interesting developments for our media in our region. Take the case of Uganda Journalists Association; the argument for accepting government funding was eloquently argued in the New Vision. The article likened the Media to the Judiciary and Parliament; the two arms of the government that are funded by the state yet they remain fairly independent.

The argument got better when it alluded to the Media’s Fourth Estate status, in effect implying that in practice, all media the world over are an integral part of government. Their function; to be watchdog in our society and protect the rights of ordinary citizens therefore qualifies them to be funded by the state just like the judiciary and parliament that don’t lose their independence merely because the state funds them.

To be honest, most of unethical conduct we cry about in the media today arise from poor conditions of service the so called media houses offer to journalists. In Kenya, independent journalists can easily be referred to as modern day slaves. This is because their packages are worse than those of farm laborers in our rural areas. This pathetic situation can be found in any part of Africa where freelance correspondents form the bulk of practicing journalists.

This scenario puts active membership of journalists unions in our countries in jeopardy. They may enroll as members but they will not contribute financially to the running of their union for it to meaningfully agitate for their rights.

Because of their financial vulnerability, union leaders have been known to be compromised by media owners or the government of the day depending on who is seeking for their favors in a dispute. If the media owners are fighting an industrial dispute with journalists, the chances of bribing officials to abandon the case can be real. If a political party in power wants to retain power in an election, the services of these union leaders can come in handy.

Either way, there is no meaningful independence that journalists in our region can boast of.

The case for government funding journalists unions like Kenya’s KUJ and Uganda’s UJA are there and are real.

However, let the unions not rush into this marriage without a statute or a clause in the constitution that guarantees them this funding as well as their freedoms. Let the stature spell out the details of this arrangement so that in future, no rogue government in power can take it away at whim. Let it not be a favor or charity from a sitting president. Let it emanate from Parliament as an Act of law so that journalists can improve their lot and at the same time safeguard press freedom in our society.

On the other hand; the Kenyan scenario where Media Owners Association has opted for government funding is very intriguing. Here is a case where commercial entities that rake in millions of shillings in profits every year have chosen to have their cake at eat it at the same time. They want an independent and self regulatory Council but they want the government to pay for it! They want the government to foot the bill but they don’t want it to question its operations! Is this really possible in the real world? Hasn’t it been said time and time again that he who pays the piper calls the tune?

On another note, it was baffling to see two leading Kenyan newspapers report on the new amendments to the Media Bill but carry out different and conflicting contents of the gazette notice. Whereas the Daily Nation hailed the government for finally repealing the obnoxious clause that empowered the Minister for Internal Security to invade and dismantle equipment in any Media House that threatened National Security, the Standard was emphatic that the clause was not included in the amendment.

According to the Standard; the State Law Office had hoodwinked the Media once more!
In this kind of contradictory reporting, who can Kenyans believe? How come the media could not come together in Kenya, analyze the amendments together and issue a joint statement that would clarify the position for all media? In the present state of confusion; it is easier for the government to hang one media while the public brands the other a government stooge!