News 2008


Why the Media Must Take Up Opposition Role

The Nation (Nairobi)


8 March 2008

Donald B. Kipkorir


Lord Jeffrey Archer, that failed and criminal British politician but fabled and hugely successful novelist slept with a whore after paying her about $100 (Sh7,000) in 1987. When London's Daily Star reported the dalliance, he sued the paper and was awarded $800,000 (Sh56 million) plus legal costs.

In 2001, his side-kick who had provided an alibi in the libel case, confessed that he had lied, and Lord Archer was charged and convicted for perjury and perversion of justice.

He was sentenced to four years' jail and was forced to refund libel damages totalling more than $2.5 million (Sh1.75 billion) to the Daily Star.

The incident shows the role of the media as a watchdog in society, and the perils it faces from crooked and sleazy politicians who manipulate the judicial system.

Now that President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga have signed a power-sharing deal that basically removes opposition parties, there is need to redefine the role of the media.

By dint of the removal of Section 2A of the Constitution, Kenya became a multi-party democracy.

A true democracy is one that has a genuinely independent and impartial judiciary, a parliament whose legislative supremacy is guaranteed and an Executive that is not tyrannical.

This separation of powers of government acts to prevent any arm from running rough-shod over the others.

Sadly though, in Kenya it has been mostly a fašade because for the past 45 years since independence, the Executive has been hiring the other branches.

After Kenya started making steps towards a democracy, the crisis precipitated by Electoral Commission chief Samuel Kivuitu and his team has forced us to stall the process by entering into a grand coalition.

In this unique arrangement, it is only the media that can act to check each government arm's excesses.

In the ancient regimes of France and England, there were three centres of power in their legislative assemblies - the clergy, the nobility and the commoners.

In appreciating the unique role of the media in tempering this triumvirate, Edmund Burke, a British philosopher and political theorist of the 18th Century, pointed to the media gallery in Parliament and said: " Yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all".

In 1931, Stanley Baldwin, a Tory leader, was so piqued by the intrusive and influential power of the media that he accused them of having " power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".

Memorable phrase

The sting of this memorable phrase is lost as Baldwin lived in a robust democracy and did not have the prescience that, 77 years later, a country like Kenya would be a mongrel political system - multiparty and in which all parties sit on the government side.

It is neither a parliamentary nor presidential democracy, a misfortune imposed on us by faulty institutions since independence and climaxed by the ECK in the recent elections.

In a country such as Kenya that claims to be a democracy but does not actually implement the basic tenets it is demanded of, the media have the singular role of whipping it into place.

It is now agreed that the general populace surrender leadership to a small group of people either elected to the legislature or by choice decide to be in public service and the clergy.

The three sets of people have decided to step forward to serve the rest of us and, by that free choice, must lead by example and accept scrutiny.

Public leadership in the three areas is not a comfort zone.

The libel law, as is now developed over time, makes the lives of such leaders a matter of public interest.

It is the right of the media to everyday monitor the lives of the public leaders to see to it that they not only play their roles and duties as demanded by their offices, but also do it with moral integrity and probity.

Once one takes up an elective office or a role in the public service and the Church, one ceases to have a private life.

President Kibaki and Mr Odinga have come into a joint leadership, robbing Kenya of a robust opposition. As PNU, ODM and ODM Kenya form the government, voices of dissent will be muffled.

Everyone will be forcing their way into and remaining in the kitchen so that none will watch when the main house is burning. It is party time for all parties and tribes.

Despite its primitive and backward politico-economy, Kenya has in the Public Officer Ethics Act, 2003, anchored what is demanded of a public officer.

The Act prohibits a public servant from political partisanship, having his private engagements conflict with public work, practising nepotism and tribalism, lying to the public and being involved in any activity that brings his or her personal character and integrity into disrepute.

Powerful minister

In Britain, when the media pointed out that David Blunkett, that blind but powerful minister of Home Affairs and confidante of Prime Minister Tony Blair, had fast-tracked the visa application for his Filipino nanny mistress, he resigned.

Expediting the visa process is not criminal, but it brought into question Blunkett's integrity and whether he could be trusted with a ministry that deals with internal security and immigration.

Our laws may not be the best, but they set out the various powers of government institutions and the limits of each office-holder.

Yet we have allowed these institutions to surrender their powers and individuals to exercise powers they do not have. It is these breaches of the law that create and nurture a culture of impunity cutting across the society.

As the politicians enter their honeymoon, many questions need to be answered and issues addressed, and the people cannot wait for the Government's bureaucratic machinery.

The media must ask and find answers to, for instance, was the tallying of the presidential election manipulated by the ECK and returning officers? Was the post-election violence organised, and if so, by who?

Why do the Mungiki and the Sabaot Land Defence Force, terrorist organisations, thrive? Do police have parallel command structures?

Why are police commissioner Hussein Ali and Internal Security minister George Saitoti still in office when the Mungiki can demonstrate in the middle of Nairobi without a licence?

Do politicians pay taxes for the sudden riches they make when they become ministers after living lives of penury? Even if our economy grew at 7 per cent a year for 100 years, would we ever be a middle-class economy?

Why do ministers stack their ministries with members of their tribes?

Is Parliament playing its role, and is the Judiciary independent, impartial and transparent?

Do we pay for the upkeep and the security of our leaders' mistresses? Do our leaders drink, and if so, what drinks? Do our leaders sleep with prostitutes?

Do our leaders have and maintain the moral probity and integrity necessary for their positions?

It is only by such intense scrutiny that we will trust the leaders with our wealth and security.

If they do not want to pass muster they ought to go to the private sector or into retirement. One cannot want public leadership and at the same time demand privacy - the two do not go together.

Public leaders are the mirror of society, and the ideal that we all aspire to be. Our leaders must be people who work hard, pay their taxes, believe in merit, are not tribalists and are people of high moral integrity.

If they cannot do what their offices demand of them, and with integrity, how can the country find its way out of the morass?

All successful empires and countries have had their leaders lead by example. Africa in general and Kenya in particular are still at the bottom because there is lack of moral leadership, and because the media are silent or cowed and the Judiciary at times a handmaid of politicians profiteering from alleged private lives.

In Kenya, the Fourth Estate should have included the clergy and the lobby groups, but the latter have selective amnesia.

Last year, the two latter groups climbed down from their hallowed positions and took a partisan role.

The Church followed political spirits and preached not what they heard from God. And the lobby groups were still finding a role and relevance after they lost their way in 2003. The media, though stained, remains the only viable sector that can occupy the position of an opposition party.

The Media Act, 2007, and the police fiat do not take away the media's fundamental and constitutional duty. If the media go to sleep and abdicate this higher calling, Kenya will be the loser.

Two years from now, the little that remain of our institutions and structures will collapse.

The media must therefore hold guard and the perils that go with the role. It is a little price to pay for the country.