Targeting journalists misplaced aggression
Published on February 1, 2008, 12:00 am
By Dan Okoth
The past month has been a trying time for Kenya. The country has seen unprecedented violence from Mombasa in the coast to Busia on the western border. Hundreds have been killed, thousands have been displaced, and faces of sorrow are everywhere. Few have escaped the pain in some way.
Journalists have brought the news about it to the sitting rooms and into the hands of those who could bear it. It is the media that took the news to the world abroad, bringing a neutral helping hand that might make us see the sense of restoring peace.
This week, it was disheartening to read that journalists have joined the list of those being threatened in the aftermath of the December 27 General Election.
At least 12 journalists from different media houses have received threatening messages.
Journalists have previously brought good news: Economic growth, the optimism following regime change in 2002. But shall we only accept the good news and stone the messenger when he brings bad news?
The earliest models of communication envisaged a passive audience that took in whatever was conveyed. They were like a sponge in water. The Hypodermic Needle Theory of communication that originated in the 1920s assumed the media audience was easily manipulated with messages that caused uniform effects.
Today, communication specialists know they deal with sophisticated, educated audiences capable of making their own decisions regardless of the messages.
Their audience will shout back, make their own judgements and walk away if offended. That is why few would tremble even if Dr Alfred Mutua thundered a million orders from KICC every Thursday. Not many would jump into Lake Baringo just because a journalist wrote there was a golden egg in the waters. Clearly, the Hypodermic Needle Theory is redundant.
The media give society a forum to leaders’ motives and bring them to account for misdeeds. Through the media, society know who is using the Constituency Development Fund for the right project and who is vomiting on their feet.
Through the media, society gets to know who stole what and how much. The media are only messengers, many times literally running errands. How society reacts to the media messages has entirely been its own business.
So what has changed? Is it the media or the society that uses the media? Newspapers, TV and radio stations have undergone no revolutionary change in the last several years. They do what they have always done. The proliferation of broadcast media and the growing number of newspapers have left the media industry largely intact.
The same commitment to truth, however uncomfortable, is the same as it was in 1990 when Dr Robert Ouko was assassinated; in 1991 when multipartism was re-introduced; in 1997 when Moi returned to State House for his last term; in 2002 when Mwai Kibaki took over; in 2005 when the country voted against a new constitution, and last year when over 300 journalists protested against a Bill that would have rendered their work impossible.
But it is a different story with the readers and listeners. In the 1970s and 1980s, the typical newspaper reader was a Form Four leaver. Today, the media deal with a sophisticated audience with some education.
Media should point to alternatives to violence. One such alternative is peaceful protests, an offshoot of civil disobedience as espoused by David Henry Thoreau.
Another option is dialogue. Dissent must not obliterate the law, for the same law that gives the police authority to hold guns also allows peaceful demonstrations.
The same law that puts somebody in State House permits opposition to illegal directives like shooting unarmed protesters or throwing teargas into hospitals or grieving homes.
The media do not operate in a vacuum. The violence and heartlessness today does not originate in the media. That is why it is terribly mistaken for the Minister for Information to blame the media like he did at a public debate at The Stanley, last week. At the meeting called to discuss the chaos, the minister accused the media of fanning violence. He avoided mentioning flawed presidential election and the discredited and questionable mandate as the egg that hatched the spiralling chaos. If we must blame somebody for the crisis then the people know whom.
Blame from a minister who attends meetings with former journalists in tow is blind arrogance, grand delusion or both.
One wonders what is difference between a politician blaming journalists and the felon sending threatening messages. One may conclude that one has the podium and the instruments of State, while the other waits for darkness, but both are cut from the grossly mistaken cloth of brute force.
—The writer is Chief Sub Editor, The Standard