Journalists Lives Matter: Holding the Line for Truthtellers

The fourth edition of our #FutureorFuneral series explored the risks – and rewards – of speaking truth to power. What does it look like to be the voice that amplifies the truth, and holds space for truth telling and integrity? What does it mean to dedicate your life to the truth, against the backdrop of a compromised media environment, hostile political climates and “alternative facts”?

Author and journalist Nanjala Nyabola in her opening remarks highlighted that governments are increasingly using cybersecurity as a pretext for narrowing the democratic space and clamping down on those who would critique the powerful.

“Every single law that has been passed in Kenya today in order to address online security and safety has first been used against critics of the state – whether they self-identify as journalists, bloggers, or content creators. The first swing is always directed to people who have made those in power uncomfortable,” said Nyabola.

She also connected the process of intimidating journalists, including misinformation and harassment to “the retreat of the traditional media,” which fellow panelist Daniel Kalinaki spoke to as more the result of slow-burning economic pressures, rather than an outright, ideological abdication of holding power to account.

“Media houses find themselves vulnerable economically when government is a major player as an advertiser and thus source of income… it’s much harder [for the media in that context] to challenge power,” said Kalinaki.

Kalinaki, Ugandan journalist, editor and author, also framed the decline of the traditional media as partially self-inflicted. “We probably took it for granted that the audience understood the importance of quality, trusted journalism in building a democratic society. There has been a relative lack of media literacy,” in effect, people don’t really grasp why we need a free press.

Arguably, this lack of understanding translates into a kind of ambivalence on the part of the audience, and a tension that journalists themselves have to navigate. In effect, journalism culture in the region can most accurately be described as ambivalent, switching between critical reporting and pandering to political elites – resulting in a kind of lukewarm support from audiences even for hard-hitting and important stories.

“Our focus [for news stories] has always been on the powerful, on the elite and those who move through society far easier than the majority. That critical mass, having been ignored for so long felt like they didn’t really matter,” said John-Allan Namu, investigative journalist and founder of Africa Uncensored. Because of this, by the time media houses began to turn to audiences directly for support, it felt inauthentic.

“The people who paid our bills – advertisers – weren’t the people we claimed to be representing – the audience,” said Kalinaki. “I think the shake-up of the economic fundamentals means that those media houses that survive will have to rely on the audience for their income directly. I think that’s very democratizing – if you’re relevant, you’ll have enough people giving you that money for what you’re doing. It means you have to be more accountable, transparent and fair, and you’ll have to listen more.”

Perhaps one way to achieve this bottom-up support is a refocus on local news. “In Kenya it’s unfortunate that we started [the mainstream media] with national news as the focal point. Ultimately everything becomes co-opted into the discourse of the ‘nation-building’ project, and into this very vaguely defined, normative idea of what patriotism is,” argued Nyabola. There is an opportunity to correct this by establishing hyperlocal news that speaks directly to the needs and concerns of small, defined communities.

For his part, William Oloo-Janak spoke of the challenges of being a correspondent in the field, highlighting that while working conditions for journalists vary significantly depending on the size of the media house they work for, about 80% of journalists in Kenya today are employed as correspondents, meaning that they do not receive a regular salary and depend on short term contracts. As stringers, many only get paid for pieces that are published.

The challenges not withstanding, there is still much work to be done, but it is important to pace oneself and cultivate some practices for joy and self-care.

“The pace of social change is more glacial than a sprint,” said Kalinaki in concluding remarks, reflecting on the need for being patient with oneself. “When you’re younger you think you’ll break a story, force a resignation, topple governments, cause wars, end wars, bring world peace… when you’re older you realise that some of the things you do will pay off in the long run, and some things may not even pay off… the important thing [to realise] is that you do your bit and that other people who come after you will hopefully build [on what you’ve done].”

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