By Tonnie Iredia
In many parts of the world, the national agenda is usually set by the media. What people know and think about are usually those things which become issues of the moment because they are highlighted and emphasized by the media. But in most of Africa, the situation is different; the issues that people talk about all day are those which are of interest to the political class. Nothing else matters. It is the politicians that own the mass media as they are more or less the only beneficiaries of broadcast licences.
Although Nigeria’s Broadcasting Commission is legally empowered to regulate the broadcast industry, there are politicians whose proposed radio and television stations get licensed before their applications for such licences are received by the regulator. While government owned stations are controlled to forego balance and objectivity, the regulator is used to intimidate opposition stations making it hard for their operatives to determine any public agenda. Against this backdrop, those who incessantly accuse the media of failure to hold government accountable to the people hardly know the basis of the seeming weakness of African media operatives.
The government of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya recently took the anti-media posture a little bit higher when it closed some television stations for their coverage of the swearing-in of opposition leader as the peoples’ president. At the event which was reportedly attended by a huge crowd of some 15,000 people, opposition leader, Raila Odinga took a symbolic presidential oath in the heart of Nairobi. As if thinking with its legs, the government did nothing to stop the much publicised event from holding; instead, it decided to close three broadcast stations which transmitted the event. Fred Matiang‘i, the minister in charge of security, accused “some elements in the media of facilitating the illegal act and putting lives of thousands of Kenyans at risk.” In line with how African governments use the official broadcast regulators to trample on the rights of the stations they are mandated to regulate; security officers accompanied technicians from the Communications Authority to the transmission station in Limuru, about 35km west of Nairobi, to switch off the television stations’ signals.
Bearing in mind that the main function of the media in society is keep people informed of events happening around them and beyond, it is unreasonable for a government to punish the media for meeting the mandate for which they were established. But that was what government did in Kenya the week before. According to media reports, it was hell for the country’s media professionals. Larry Madowo a well-known TV news anchor of one of the affected stations was reported to have said that he and two other journalists were forced to spend the night in their newsroom having gathered from several sources that undercover policemen were waiting in the parking lot outside their offices to pick up anyone they found. By this act, Kenyatta easily joined the league of the world’s despots who are insensitive to democratic reliance on free media and the rule of law. As the Media Council of Kenya appropriately opined, the development is “the greatest threat and assault on freedom of expression and media in Kenya’s recent history.”
Painfully, the government further showed its preference for impunity when it elected to disobey court orders asking her to reopen the shut stations. This violation of the constitution led to public demonstrations by political activists and civil society groups to express outrage against the government’s posture. In reaction, the government sent the police to tear gas the demonstrators. This probably forced the United Nations and the United States to formally criticize Kenya’s government.
The United States while deprecating the continued closure of the stations in spite of an interim order by a Kenyan High Court. said it was “deeply concerned by the government’s action to shut down, intimidate, and restrict the media.”. On the part of the UN, its spokesperson, Rupert Colville issued a statement calling on the government to respect and implement judicial decisions. There is doubt if on this subject; the world is not virtually into the communication of the deaf with Africa. To start with, African governments said nothing about the travails of the media in Kenya. Instead, the African Union (AU) merely slammed Raila Odinga for undermining the “constitutional order and the rule of law” as if that was the only wrong concerning the development.
What free media means to African politicians is for the media to publicize only those things that favour the government in power and never anything adverse to the same government. Irrespective of which political party forms the government, the attitude of the political class is the same. Today, we all chastise Uhuru Kenyatta for his anti-media posture in Kenya. For as long as that is the situation, the opposition party would stand by the media and take time now and again to extol the media.
If tomorrow the roles change and today’s hero becomes Kenya’s president, all that Kenyatta did would be reenacted if not with greater vigour. In Nigeria, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government demonstrated this when it was in power. It converted a substantial part of the 2015 presidential election into a media war featuring hate speeches and a campaign of calumny against the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Today, the media of yesterday that were manipulated against the opposition are now fully poised to chorus only the activities of the current president and his All Progressive Congress APC that were undermined in the past.
Like Jonathan’s Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria, support groups urging the President to seek reelection in 2019 make daily headlines in the public media. It is however not just a federal issue.During the Edo governorship election in 2016, the then governor, Adams Oshiomole did not only bar opposition parties from the state media, he got the federal authorities to, as he promised, “deal” with reporters in the NTA Benin who were officially assigned to cover activities of the opposition party. Again it is not a new phenomenon that state governments deal with “unfriendly” media professionals. In 2012, Journalist Lere Olayinka was arrested for allegedly promoting feelings of ill will and hostility between teachers and government of Ekiti State. In May 2017, an online publisher, Austin Okai was charged with sedition and defamation against Governor, Yahaya Bello of Kogi State. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta may not be a Nigerian but he shouldn’t find it hard to learn from Africa’s largest political entity.