World press freedom day is here with us, just like every year. It is a time to reflect on how far, as Kenya media has come and interrogate where the future lies.
Wikipedia defines public broadcasting as;
Public broadcasting includes radio, television and other electronic media outlets whose primary mission is public service.
The best example of how public broadcasting and its impact to the public is the BBC. BBC is largely funded by the taxpayers and also through charity. It therefore does not rely on advertising for its growth and sustainability, hence able to truly avail public interest information to the public. It is currently undergoing restructuring, informed by this financial model, but still remains robust.
A great example of its impact is its investigations program Panorama. In March 2002, it unearthed many untruths about Britain’s involvement in Iraq, citing then Prime Minister Tony Blair as having lied to the public. It also unearthed Blair’s inaccurate financial dealings in which he falsified documents so that he gets money to pay for his son’s fees at Yale.
The impact of these investigations saw Blair resigning from office. It was then stated that his departure was due to differences with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his successor Gordon Brown.
That a media house can investigate the head of government and unearth serious anomalies is not only fundamental media independence but also lies at the core of the existence of media itself.
In Kenya, political leadership in the country largely controls media directly and indirectly. This coupled with advertisement, the life blood of the industry means that quality and quantity public interest stories will be too much to ask for. You certainly cannot bite the hand that feeds you.
This then seeks the question whether a public broadcaster is the answer!
There are so many ills in the country which TV stations try to highlight from time to time, however they have many limitations. For instance, no media house will touch the big corporates like Britam, Safaricom, Barclays, Equity, EABL, and Cocacola, just to mention but a few. This does not include government itself which provides about 60 percent of all advertisement to media houses.
In the event we had a public broadcaster, this would never have been the case. Dr. Bitange Ndemo proposed this around 2011 but was muzzled by the media owners who knew this effort will eat them dry; their viewership. You see, these media houses depend on viewership to cost advertising. Anyone who would threaten their viewership is an enemy to the bottom line.
A public broadcaster in Kenya would be financed solely from the consolidated fund. They would do a budget and submit to Treasury, just like independent constitutional commissions and institutions like the Judiciary do. Then Parliament would appropriate accordingly.
Of course this does not mean that their independence would be absolute. They will still suffer threats, from financing from Parliament and Treasury so as to render it ineffective. This then provides for two avenues;
One, the institution be allowed to source for funds from charitable institutions. This means that institutions like Safaricom, even though they have foundations and if they want to support it, will have a stringent guidelines that ensure they will not tamper with the editorial independence of the organization.
Secondly, a minimum threshold should set. This entails something close to how Counties and CDF are currently being funded. This minimum could be any figure or percentage arrived at from either ordinary revenues or from allocations to the Ministry of Information. This is critical since the minimum would guarantee ability to do some investigations in a year. Investigative journalism is very expensive and time consuming. It would also mean it is able to attract and retain great talent.
The Dr. Ndemo suggestion would have seen KBC split into two; a public broadcaster and a private one, free to get adverts. This was seen as critical to helping revive the company, which is currently strangled with debts which negatively impact on its growth. There are proposed reforms to the institutions currently, which will not yield much so long as the fundamentals remain the same.
Ceteris Paribus, a public broadcaster is the answer to Kenya’s search for informative media. It will help streamline egoistic mainstream media and ensure the fourth estate truly lives to its billing.