Recently, a headline in Kenya’s Daily Nation screamed: “Do they even care?” The reference was to three powerful men and the urgent problems enveloping the country, not least being the ongoing hunger.
Another edition of the same publication highlighted the collapsed mortuary system whose dysfunction is seen in tens of unclaimed bodies. In both instances, the newspaper interceded on behalf of the voiceless with those who shape policies. At various times when a social condition had been neglected for so long that it pricked our collective consciousness, newspapers in Kenya have intervened in similar forceful and direct fashion.
These interventions rouse the fat cats in government offices. Suddenly, you see regulatory bodies you never knew existed emerge from the woodwork. Without such editorializing, the fat cats would continue to sleep in their offices or scheming about impending tenders, while waiting for fat salaries and allowances.
However, the media has also unwittingly abetted the creation of a negligent governance culture.
First, the media sideline or marginalize subjects that are not directly related to politics, while giving acres of space and prime time to politicians.
Voices of doctors, teachers or even academics are only heard when they go on strike.
Second, when journalists interview policy and decision makers, it is hardly to hold them to account. The interview is an avenue for the policymaker to explain himself.
There are no hard follow-up questions. No presentation by the journalist of alternative views based on laws and history. A case in point was when a senator was caught on camera throwing stones at opponents. The next morning, he was on a prime time morning TV talk show pontificating on all manner of issues.
The journalist, almost obsequiously, asked polite questions, always addressing the stone thrower as ” honorable. ” Not once was the senator’s thuggish behavior alluded to. The journalist had unwittingly ” laundered ‘bad behavior. And in similar ways, the media launders hate mongers, thieves and liars.
Such acts contribute to the negligent governance culture where stealing is okay or where hate speech and insults are acceptable campaign repertoire.
When the media highlights other people and other views and experiences, they are also propagating alternative values.
A few weeks ago I attended a gathering of former political prisoners and human rights organizations in Nairobi. Although all media had been invited, the mainstream media were a no-show. If it had been a gathering of a parliamentary aspirant, the event would have made front-page news.
How will the public understand that politics can be other than throwing stones or hate speech? How will they know that people can sacrifice for an idea, not for personal but for national gain?
Who will help inculcate a different value system in our governance culture when the media make thuggish elements their darlings?
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator