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KBC Coverage Question an Issue of 'Cannot' Rather than 'Will Not'

December 17, 1997

Philip Ochieng, Special Corespondent [Commentary]

Is it fair to say, as some opposition parties have done, that the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation is unwilling to treat all parties equally, in accordance with the stipulations of the Inter Parties Parliamentary Group agreement?

Is it not more correct to say that the broadcasters are unable to do so? Try as the station might to meet all the requirements, it could find this task difficult, if not impossible, simply because the minds of those in charge are too fossilised to move with the times.

Some have been there doing the same things for so long they have become nearly as unavailing as the cobwebs on their office ceilings. One of their habits, carried over from the days of Mzee Kenyatta, is that whatever the President does must be the leading item on every news bulletin.

And so every Sunday, radio and television alike will lead their news with a report that President Moi "joined other worshippers in a church service" somewhere or other in this large country.

What KBC has never learned is to distinguish between the routine and the newsworthy in covering the movements of the head of state. It is important that Kenyans know what their president is doing - not only his supporters but his political opponents, too. Some time last year when the country had not been informed about President Moi's whereabouts for several days, there was unhealthy speculation.

But the fact is that the President is widely-known to be a regular church-goer. What will be real news will be the Sunday he does not go to church.

The lack of news sense among KBC's editors means that the most important events, even during these exciting electioneering days, are relegated to the bottom of the bulletin until every item concerning the president's church appearance has been ticked off. The information is often prolix and trivial - the suit he wore, the hymn book he held, the pastor's name, the Scripture on which the sermon was based, the list of dignitaries who accompanied the President and, of course 10 minutes of the preacher's oratory.

It is a measure of Kenyans' understanding of democracy that they do not see anything undemocratic in this practice by KBC. Indeed every Sunday, KBC news is dominated by the Christian message in a multi-confessional [...]. However it is not the president's Christianity that interests citizens, be they Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Bahai or whatever, but secular matters. Kenya is not a theocratic state, which is why a Sikh, say, can be president and an atheist can be a loyal and effective servant of the state.

It is, therefore, quite unjust to use such an influential instrument as a nationwide broadcasting service to report only Christian activities, especially when those activities are not even news. Let KBC and other media restrict religion to the slots set aside for them and not encroach on the news zone with sectarian messages.

The President does not demand to be given this kind of treatment. When Jared Kangwana, Jerry Thompson and I ran The Kenya Times, we ended the practice of automatically putting all Moi stories on page one. He himself often reminded us that stories about him must compete with others in accordance only with their newsworthiness. Although President Moi [...] which are ill-advised and self-defeating, he certainly does not command the many stupid things that others, including the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, do in his name. Thus if the President, is committed to the IPPG package, as I believe he is, KBC does him a great disservice by acting in a way that runs athwart that package, such as ignoring the activities of other parties. I submit that it is inability to measure up, rather than unwillingness, that is responsible.

KBC, Kenya Times and other media linked to the State and the ruling party, may be quite willing to change in line with multiparty demands. The question is whether they can latch onto new, more creative and more versatile minds to run them.

Philip Ochieng is a former newspaper editor in Kenya and Uganda.

©Copyright 2000, The East African

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