For nearly a week now, three of Kenya’s major privately-owned TV stations have been off air due to a row with the industry regulator over migration to a digital platform. The stations, NTV, Citizen TV and KTN, which together account for the vast majority of TV viewership in the country (they claim up to 90 percent), have had a long running and convoluted battle with the Communications Authority essentially demanding a license to broadcast their own content as opposed to handing it over to the two carriers the government has licensed.
It is said that truth is often the first casualty of war. This has been no exception. As both sides have sought to sway public opinion to their cause, honesty and objectivity have been tossed out the window. On the one hand, the government has tried to paint it as a fight to tame intransigent, monopolistic-minded media companies scared of the level field that comes with digital migration. On the other, the companies have portrayed it as a struggle against a deaf, authoritarian-minded regime intent on auctioning off national resources to the Chinese (one of the licensed carriers is Chinese).
While there has been more than enough mud to go round, and though the incompetence of the regulator is hard to ignore, it is clear that the TV companies seem to be coming off worst. The are probably two reasons for this. Most Kenyans don't watch TV and those that do have a hard time trusting the media.
Let's start with the latter. The merits of it's case aside, government’s propaganda has tapped into a rich vein of distrust and contempt for the media, one that, ironically, has grown out of the fraternity’s uncritical embrace of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration.
The Kenyan press is struggling with the legacy of its anodyne reporting during the flawed 2013 election and subsequent reluctance to challenge the official narrative and government conduct on most issues and events. These include during the President’s trial at the International Criminal Court, the responses to terrorist attacks, including the attack on the Westgate Mall and the targeting of the Somali and Muslim communities, as well as the continuing demonization of civil society.
Further, the TV stations' fascination with Mexican soaps and Nigerian movies, when most television consumers are mainly interested in the news, cannot do their reputation much good.
The media"s one-sided reporting of the digital migration impasse has not helped matters. Journalists have seemed either unable or unwilling to separate the interests of media conglomerates from those of the public. On the contrary, they have simply tried to sell the company line as the national cause. This is not new. Research carried out in 2012 found that “the line between media owners and editors has increasingly been blurred as the latter are co-opted into the formers’ domain, meaning the editors no longer exclusively pursue professionalism.”
If poll numbers are to be believed, public trust in the media is very brittle. Over three years ago when one survey found 77 percent of respondents saying they trusted the media. Just four months after the 2013 election, this had dropped to 46 percent before rising to 68 percent in November and collapsing again to 43 percent in March last year. The lesson here? Public trust is a commodity the Kenyan media takes for granted at its peril. As Peter Oborne recently wrote in his resignation statement as chief political commentator of the UK’s Telegraph: “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. [The media has a] duty to tell … the truth.”
The other reason the TV companies are losing this is that most of the country doesn't watch TV. “Starve the city dwellers and they riot; starve the peasants and they die. If you were a politician, which would you choose?" asked an aid-worker in Lloyd Timberlake’s 1988 book, Africa in Crisis. The current “crisis” has proven that not all audiences are created equal. Some matter more than others.
A relatively small, TV-owning minority punches above its weight in political terms. Two-thirds of Kenyan households do not actually own a television set, but politicians are scrambling to cater to the needs of the one-third that do, even altering their calendars to accommodate them. The launch of the OKOA Kenya campaign, for example, has been postponed until the standoff is resolved, with opposition leader, Raila Odinga, declaring “There can be no amendment of the constitution without the people and their can be no people without the media."
The fact is, despite radio being far and away the main source of news for the vast majority of Kenyans, the fact is TV is king in urban areas. The medium has overthrown the newspaper as the mediator of elite political discourse in the country.
For the rest of the country, the promise of impressive clarity and variety is largely empty. Debates about cost and availability of set-top boxes are largely irrelevant for the 70 percent of the population who cannot even afford TV sets and the 80 percent who have no electricity to run them on. As Eng Francis Wangusi, the Director-General of the Communications Authority said recently, “If somebody can buy and maintain a TV in their house, that person is not poor.” He could have added that most Kenyans are poor.
Beyond what the media have got wrong, perhaps we as a country should consider expanding the scope of the discussion beyond just digital TV migration. According to one survey, by 2011, 93 percent of Kenyan households owned a mobile phone. Maybe the phone could do for TV what it has done for money transfer and banking. Mobile TV could allow the poor to access the digital TV services that are now slated to be the preserve of a lucky few. So instead of only talking about STBs, digital transmitters and distribution licenses, perhaps our tech and policy wonks could also spend some of the time debating the merits of providing affordable mobile TV to all.