Just three years after the French Revolution (1787-99), Edmund Burke, the British parliamentarian and orator, looking up at the Press Gallery of the House of the Commons, uttered these immortal words, “Yonder Sits the Fourth Estate, More Important than Them All.”
Burke was telling his fellow Legislatures about the critical watchdog role of the Press. Around the same time, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of The United States of America, Burke’s peer in oratorical prowess in a moment of truth took the argument to the next level in one of the most profound statements ever made about the press.
If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” Jefferson was to later suffer from the same media he so much defended but he held this maxim to be true all his life.
It is debatable whether Burke and Jefferson latitudes about the press would hold when it comes to the role of the media in Kenya’s National Saga, but there is no doubt that the media has had tremendous impact in setting the agenda and influencing positive social change in our motherland.
Indeed, Kenya’s story in all spheres of development has been inextricably intertwined with that of the media. The media has intertwined in and impacted all other sectors, and their contribution to the nation’s development saga has been a long story steeped in sacrifice, sweat, tears and blood.
From the Harry Thuku riot outside the Norfolk Hotel to Jomo Kenyatta’s Muiguithania pamphleteering, to the Mau Mau State of Emergency and the struggle for the restoration of plural democracy accompanied by the mothers of political prisoners stripping at Freedom Corner, in Uhuru Park.
The media both showcased and fundamentally defined and chronicled by the media, sometimes setting the agenda, shaping opinion and influencing perceptions that have captured all the paradigms of our national development story.
It is the media that first reported the number of the dead at Thuku riot in 1922 exposed the Hola Massacre in 1959 announced the assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Joseph Mboya and Josiah Mwangi ((JM) Kariuki in 1965-1975;and filmed and photographed the stripping mothers of political prisoners in 1991. Later media broke the news on the assassination of my late lecturer at The University of Nairobi Dr Odhiambo Mbai in 2004.
Indeed, this country boasts world class practitioners of journalism, the foremost being the late photojournalist Mohamed Amin, who brought the Ethiopian famine of 1984 to the world’s notice. Numerous Kenyan journalists born in the independence era have won the CNN Journalist of the Year Award, among many other plaudits, confirmation that our journalism has indeed travelled along road and done so mostly in the right direction.
Long before Independence in the 1920’s, Kenyatta’s Muiguithania (The Reconciler) pamphlet was Kenya’s first African newspaper, the contents of which has one colonial Governor, Sir Edward Grigg (1926), In a letter, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London warned that the political tone of the newspaper gave grounds for worry, fuming:
“There is a danger that this emotional and semi-religious propaganda may spread very rapidly among excitable and ignorant native, and it is clearly desirable that means should be devised to protect the native themselves…from such an insidious menace.’’
The authorities closed down Muigwithania in 1940, along with the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Four years later the self-taught journalist and intellectual Henry Muoria (1914-1997) launched its successor, Mumenyereri (The Guardian). He targeted the same community that had constituted Muigwithania’s readership–a community that was being created by access to reading matter in their own language, among other influences (Lonsdale 1996).
And long before he became Kenya’s first Prime Minister and first President, Jomo Kenyatta was the first Kenyan journalist. In 1936, he became the first Kenyan African to write a book in English, Facing Mount Kenya.
A new generation of Kenyan journalists, among them Hilary Ng’weno, George Githii, Phillip Ochieng, George Mbuggus and Joe Kadhi, spearheaded the Africanisation of mainstream journalism, taking over from white operatives after Independence. This is the generation that was succeeded in the 1980’s and 90’s by such versatile operatives as Wangethi Mwangi, Tom Mshindi, Joe Odindo, Bernard Nderitu, Esther Kamweru, Martha Mbuggus, Catherine Gicheru,Wachira Waruru and Kwendo Opanga who took Kenyan Journalism into the present age of multimedia under rapidly democratizing circumstances and new technologies.
Today, Kenyan journalism easily ranks with some of the best anywhere in the world, despite its many downsides. So critical is the role of the media that global media mogul Rupert Murdoch spoke of them thus with reference to his own company, a statement that holds great resonance for Kenya today:
News Corporation, today, reaches people at home and at work…when they’re thinking…when they’re laughing…and when they’re making choices that have enormous impact. The unique potential…and duty…of a media company are to help its audiences connect to the issue that define our time.’’
Hence, no issue defines our time better than the tremendous national and collective dream behind Millenium Development Goals and Vision 2030 in particular. Therefore, it is the sacred duty of the media in its vital role of reporting, recording and interpreting the national saga and narrative, to get the message of vision 2030 into every Kenyan home, workplace, mood and decision-making organ.
But the moot point in this entire discourse is that the media exercise tremendous power. They must therefore never be indifferent or overzealous in the exercise of this power. As in all other sectors and formats of good governance, the exercise of editorial power must be tempered with restraint, responsibility, good taste and a very firm sense of proportion.
By Vincent Oloo Mung’ao
Chair, Technocratic Age Group of Companies. The views are his own.