There's no point in trying to fight the media, writes
Dr G Odera Outa in The East African.
They are just too powerful. 


Dr G Odera Outa writes in the East African:

Thomas Jefferson's statement on freedom of the media made more than 200 years ago is a poignant reminder of what we really need to do as a war of words rages yet again between the government and the media in Kenya.

Said Jefferson: "Were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…"

As it is, Jefferson (1743-1826), also the third president of the United States of America, was proclaiming that he would rather have died in the defence of newspapers than persist in the mere defence of governments. To the best of my knowledge, this is perhaps the most powerful statement in defence of the freedom of the press ever articulated by any sitting president.

While the import of this statement is fairly self-evident, it should serve as a caution for latter-day seeking to curtail media freedom. The basic historical truth that people at Kenya's Ministry of Information must bear in mind freedom of the press in Kenya, has come a long way.

Nobody is therefore likely to succeed in taking such hard-won freedoms away.

IN THE CHEQUERED HISTORY OF LITE-rary censorship, dating back to Greco-Roman times (remember Plato's Republic?) and the more contemporary attempts by the Chinese to deny the reality of the Internet, the one persistent lesson is that censorship never succeeds. This is even more difficult in this age and time. And it holds true even for the state broadcaster, who in the race to survive in the market, is already under pressure to free itself from the unimaginative state controls of the past. This may be to the chagrin of state-functions, but the truth is that ultimately, media practice – the news business in particular – is "the selection and construction" made by editors.

To attempt any blatant and unsophisticated media censorship is therefore akin to "cutting a mugumo tree with a razor blade."

The media today has become truly formidable. Of course, this includes the rise and rise of FM stations (don't even think of trying to ban them now); the power of the SMS text via mobile telephony; and the rise of the Internet – especially the popular blogs and "I report" accounts that defy the best efforts of the thought policy.

In Kenya, too, the alternative press has come of age: all the way from the complex and telling representations that permeate our music and popular theatre, the dynamic print-media – some of whom are, of course, latter-day mutations of those anti-establishment efforts that first emerged in the dark days of the Kanu regime.

WHAT STATE AGENTS MUST RECKON with is the sheer breadth of human creativity, innovation and sophistication in news gathering and reporting, in basic analysis and feature writing, and in the way the electronic media has diversified and asserted itself.

Those born in Kenya in the 1980s and thereafter may think it's a fairy tale that not so long ago, the news menu consisted of little more than what the president and his lieutenants and said did on any given day. Many younger Kenyans do not believe that the Moi's state truly traumatised writers and editors through threats, arbitrary arrests, bribery to force co-option, imprisonment and even detention.

Some people do not believe that the Kenyan state spent huge sums of money on trying to control, censor or suppress any form of dissenting media, from innocent theatre productions to newspapers and books. An independent radio station was something no-one could dream of just 15 years ago.

The media that is virtually impossible to control is satellite broadcasting. This has made news gathering and reporting in today's world sophisticated, continuous, instant and far too voluminous for anyone to reasonably contemplate policing.

Of course, intelligence agencies have every right in the name of security to try to sift through this mass of information, but one cannot envy the sheer human and real costs this must entail.

Moreover, such relatively backward measures as slapping a ban on any medium immediately becomes the very fodder on which the press thrives, wasting no time in mobilising right across the globe.

The upshot is that our Ministry of Information is well advised to be more circumspect and to avoid thinly disguised attempts to infringe on media freedom. To be a successful Minister for Information, the wisest course is not to waste time and energy fighting the media.

But there is another, simple solution, one many organisations and countries adopt today. Just don't complain about other people's information and points of view. Instead, put yours alongside theirs. To do anything else, to have the temerity to announce a suspect probe – or audit – of the media is to set yourself up for ridicule.

* Dr G Odera Outa is a communications advisor in Kenya. This column first appeared in the East African.