Veteran journalist Philip Ochieng Otani exploded onto Kenya’s journalism scene in 1966 as a reporter for the Daily Nation aged 28. The country was just beginning to shed off the baggage of violent colonial rule, ushering in a new decade of political and cultural independence. However, beneath the promise of a glowing future that saw more black Africans take over from the British, the country was also starting to write a prologue to its self-destruction. By 1965 nationalist Pio Gama Pinto was dead. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga angrily resigned from Kanu the following year to form his party, and three years later Economic and Planning Minister Tom Mboya was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in broad daylight. The Kenyan press, though now relatively free and able to finally “concern itself with finding out what goes on in the mind of the African”, as Mboya had earlier put it, later suffered the cascading political events that would have a lasting effect on its editorial policies.
Ochieng published I Accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa in 1992, crystallising his wide-ranging thoughts around three central issues: the question of media ownership, self-censorship among editors and the know-how of journalists. He extended the idea of know-how to know-why, whereby the journalist is not just a conveyor belt of information but also has the necessary analytical sensitivity to break down the information for the reader’s benefit.
Born a precocious child in Awendo, Western Kenya, a story is told of how the then Alliance High School principal Carey Francis drove several kilometres to Ochieng’s village to convince him to return to school. Ochieng, as the legend goes, had entangled himself in bad company and was on the verge of dropping out of education, which he eventually did – not from Alliance, but from Roosevelt University in the US, where he had enrolled after benefitting from the Kennedy Airlift programme of 1959. These rather disparate intellectual foundations shine with dazzling brilliance through the pages of his book, illuminating the history of the Kenyan press that has had a profound impact on the current media landscape.
Media ownership and its dangers
Along Tom Mboya Street, just across the Khoja Mosque roundabout, is a building that used to house the Daily Nation offices. It is now called Old Nation House and only the name remains as a reminder that a media house once stood on the busy street. The building now houses shops, the sidewalk colonised by hawkers, make-shift confectionary stalls, booksellers, fruit sellers, clothes vendors, chemist shops and MPesa outlets. On the surface, the city is booming. A new world order brought about by advancements in digital technology and a liberalised media means that most of these traders don’t really care about media gatekeepers. Should they? Nation Media Group, which owns Daily Nation among other media products, and which is itself owned by Aga Khan IV, later moved to the relatively quiet Kimathi Street. Over the years, it has undergone radical transformations, unlike when Ochieng worked there, especially in the heady 1970s and 1980s, which form the backdrop of his long and intellectually stimulating musings.
Ochieng’s take on media ownership falls into three broad categories: foreign-owned, indigenous-owned and state-owned. These categories often overlap, in that a foreign-owned publication, such as Daily Nation, also has its indigenous Kenyan journalists, and editorial matters (or decisions) are left strictly to those tasked with running the paper – who in this regard include the top editors, led by the editor-in-chief. Indigenous-owned media, on the other hand, is in the hands of Kenyans but can also be susceptible to outside influence, like in the case of Hilary Ng’weno’s string of publications, which urgently needed a bailout after he plunged into financial headwinds. The indigenously-owned media outlet that is most familiar to Kenyans today is S.K. Macharia’s Royal Media Services.
Interestingly, Ochieng makes a compelling argument about the relationship between media ownership and press freedom. For example, he says, in special circumstances, state ownership “has tended to safeguard freedom – not only of the Press but the whole society – from material wants much more genuinely than has private ownership”. He goes on to cite Tanzania, where the state-owned papers in the 1970s played a vanguard role in protecting the gains of independence, while at the same championing Ujamaa – a socialist ideology aimed at self-reliance. While that statement would today sound unpopular, conservative, and be even deemed right-wing, there is a grain of truth to it. Private media ownership on the other hand, as the author vividly illustrates, does not necessarily mean there is press freedom.
Ochieng makes a compelling argument about the relationship between media ownership and press freedom.
A case in point is how the mainstream media handled the 2013 and 2017 general elections. Hiding behind a peace narrative, or what some observers have called “peacocracy”, the media tiptoed around the underlying issues that ignited the flames of electoral violence. The media on this occasion failed in its role, which Ochieng says is to provide “a full analysis of the whole system”. By becoming that which it was supposed to critique, the media lost the trust of a large swathe of the Kenyan audience. And this is why the argument for state-ownership of a newspaper or broadcaster (KBC, for instance) becomes relevant because, at the very least, the audience knows what to expect.
However, the argument about state ownership should not be endorsed wholesale. The case of the Kanu-owned Kenya Times, and its infamous “Kanu Briefs” – which Ochieng has been placed at the centre of, for orchestrating a sustained smear campaign against politicians and intellectuals who were against the ruling party – is a chilling reminder that the state must never have unchecked control of a country’s political and cultural consciousness. In recent years, politicians have been linked to various media houses, and this in itself is not a bad thing; however, vigilance must be maintained at all times to guard the media against direct political interference.
Then came the internet. Then social media. Then Facebook.
When a 20-year-old computer science and psychology student at Harvard University wrote code for a website project that would later become the interactive platform named Facebook, few could imagine the technological dividends the millennials and Generation Z would reap, accustomed as they were to filtered news and omnipresent gatekeeping (particularly the millennials). There was a fundamental shift in media ownership because if you had a social media account, you could now publish, broadcast and counteract news from mainstream sources such as newspapers and television. One could also start a blog, an online newspaper or magazine, or a YouTube channel, qualifying Ochieng’s statement that “freedom of expression is primarily a technological question”. This means that the question of media ownership and the idea of a free press in the 21st century can no longer be merely about buying shares in a media company and telling news managers and editors what to publish and what to censor.
While there are indeed genuine concerns with the citizen journalism promoted on social media platforms, especially with the rise of misinformation and disinformation that threatens the social fabric of society, the gains made so far cannot be downplayed. But how these platforms can counter narratives of self-censorship by proxy, as Ochieng puts it in his book, matters more.
The question of self-censorship
Ochieng makes a lucid argument that self-censorship affects media independence because readers do not get the value of what they pay for. More importantly, self-censorship is informed by the commercial interests of corporate mass media because “whoever owns the majority of the shares” of a particular media company will definitely affect its overall editorial policy. I want to demonstrate a recent example of what perfectly encapsulates self-censorship on the part of the Kenyan press.
During the 2017 general election, a 41-year-old man wearing a pair of brown trousers, a matching brown coat, a black and white shirt, and clutching a bag of githeri in his left hand, burst onto the media scene and became an instant sensation. Martin Kamotho, for that was his name, became the subject of wild adoration. It was, however, the manner in which the mainstream press glorified Kamotho that later became the subject of intense debate. The country was already in the grip of political tension – as usually happens during a general election – and Kenyans were beginning to question whether the polls would indeed be credible following the murder of Chris Msando, a key IEBC official. Claims that critical IT infrastructure used to transmit the results had been hacked were also of general concern. There was an overall perception that the media as an institution had learned its lessons in the 2013 general election and that it could not trust the state when it comes to setting the agenda in election reporting.
Ochieng makes a lucid argument that self-censorship affects media independence because readers do not get the value of what they pay for.
However, the case of Kamotho, later christened “Githeri Man”, exposed the crass hypocrisy of the mainstream media and its cunning ability to censor itself because it knew it could not muster the courage to answer the tough questions Kenyans were asking. Ochieng is, therefore, right that there are “the kinds of chains with which owners, managers and editors tie their own media in order to make them conform to the total ethos of the ruling class [that] cannot be seen by the majority of the people”. However, Kenyans saw through the game that was being played, and the backlash was immediate. Mainstream media was quickly baptised “Githeri Media” – purveyors of fake news, disinformation and misinformation, state apologists, propagandists who, as the fourth estate, had failed in their role to keep the government accountable.
The media’s fixation with “Githeri Man” was not just about pleasing the political class or protecting its (the media’s) commercial interests. It was also about the glaring absence of know-why among journalists – the ability to ask why a certain narrative is being vigorously promoted and not another, and what effects such an editorial policy has on the health of Kenyan journalism.
Shift towards know-why journalism
Ochieng writes that “as long as [media] training stresses little more than technique and avoids the whole problem of self-consciousness” then “training can only serve as an instrument for perpetuating the present international economic and intellectual order”. Journalism as an enterprise then becomes what I called earlier a mere conveyor belt of information, which serves no purpose in making us more aware of the immediate problems of the 21st century such as climate change, the dangers of identity politics, pandemics, repressive immigration laws, the rise of far-right ideology and the tyranny of social media companies, among others.
Kenyans saw through the game that was being played, and the backlash was immediate.
Know-why journalism, however, cannot fully bloom without sufficiently addressing the issue of know-how. The latter, which at the most basic level is about technique, is also about understanding the shifts in media operations, and how to adjust to those changes. Know-how then means having the ability to tell stories across varying multimedia platforms that include podcasts, videos, and texts. And because consumer tastes have also evolved over the years, know-why journalism can only succeed when know-how as a skill has been extensively sharpened.
Ochieng danced to the land of no return on 27 April 2021, aged 83 years. During an interview with the Saturday Nation, when asked if he “would make the same accusations” in I Accuse the Press, he said he was still likely to do just that, but be “more enlightened and thoughtful about it.” However, by standing up to the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and its connivance with the state and Western business interests, Ochieng had set the stage for a new chapter of self-criticism for journalists and media practitioners. Ochieng stood with the audience in demanding that the media play its watchdog role more effectively by delving deeper in its analysis of issues.