Sunday, May 10, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
May 10, 2009

A recently concluded media conference in Nairobi on The Media We Want came and went. Every speaker who spoke thought he had an idea of the kind of media our society wants. Unfortunately, there was hardly anything new that was said by anybody. We went round and round in cycles just like we have probably done many times in many fora in the past.

As the forum progressed, one could not fail to detect individuals from interest groups taking positions and pitching for their constituencies’ vested interests. The youth, the women, the civil society and the politicians; they all moaned how the media was biased against them and how the media was busy giving undue coverage to politics at the expense of the rural famine victims of our continent.

Perhaps any debate on media that ignores media as a commercial industry misses the point. The moment we forget that media owners are businessmen just like bankers, industrialists and insurance companies, we miss the point. The moment we forget that just like any other businessman, a media owner has the bottom line to expect, we will never get it right in knowing why media exist.

Let me tell the youth, women, civil society and any other marginalized community something they need to know: Media do not exist in our society as manna from heaven. Media cannot be our Red Cross, World Vision or Doctors without Borders. They are certainly not Christian missionaries out in strange lands to search for and save lost souls in Africa’s Dark Continent. They are commercial entities out to make a profit and keep afloat just like any businessman I know. It is therefore wise to expect favorable coverage if what you are doing is likely to further the interest of the media owner and his employees. If that is not the case then you are in for a long blackout.

Who says that media anywhere can be objective? Where did that lie come from? Take it from me; no media on earth that I know can be objective be it the Daily Nation, New York Times, New Vision or the Financial Times of London. The reason they cannot be objective is because the word objective itself is a misnomer. In the real world, we are as biased about everybody and everything every day of our lives. All we can do is to minimize this biasness to acceptable levels.

Media biasness starts from the point an individual conceptualize the idea of having a media company. He must have a particular desire he would like to satisfy. When that desire transforms into a need, it becomes an obsession for the potential media owner.

Take the case of the Aga Khan who founded the Nation Group. Way back in 1959 when the idea occurred to him after meeting Tom Mboya in Harvard, he decided to establish a newspaper that “would give voice to the voiceless struggling masses of Kenya.”

By that statement alone, Aga Khan had already taken a biased stand against a number of Kenyans he thought were already too privileged for his media. At this point, obviously he had the colonial power in mind that also controlled The Standard Newspaper and Kenya Broadcasting Service.

Forty years after the Aga Khan statement, one American of Ethiopian origin came up with another statement on the eve of his launching the Third World’s first digital satellite audio broadcast.

To Noah Samara, his dream was to “provide information to the underserved world” so that he could improve their standards of living in areas of food production, healthcare and entertainment. By this statement alone, Samara had already discriminated against the developed world together with Third World middle and upper class that already had access to the latest information technology.

By slanting our media goals to particular audiences no matter how poor or rich, we already practice media bias that will ultimately reflect on our staff charged with the responsibility of producing our news.

Therefore the only honorable thing to do is to live with the bitter truth that no media can exist to serve our sectarian interests if we are not the owners.
No media can exist to serve the interests of the mundane activism that is not in short supply in our society. All we can do is to strive to have as many media as we can if we have to advance our sectarian interests.

Yes, let many media bloom. Let the pastoralists, the disabled, the hungry, the youth, women and our tribes have their media. Let the religious groups, the civil society, industrialists, hawkers, pirates, warlords and taxi drivers have their media. This way we shall truly have nurtured media diversity and entered the kingdom of freedom of information.