For media to play its role effectively, it has to be free. This is premised on its watchdog role and the platform upon which the citizenry can engage with their leaders and themselves. Freedom from government, commercial, political and other interests is important to ensure that the media maintains objectivity in its role. While this is true, what has been the case? Increasingly, media freedom and independence face other threats besides government.
A key threat is proprietor’s interference. Take an example of a country like Kenya where the media has played a critical role in democratic development. In Kenya, it has been noted that the media played a critical role during the 2008 post-election violence caused by the disputed presidential results. While the media underpinned democratic development by providing a forum for civic and voter education enabling the country to record the highest voter turnout since introduction of multiparty democracy in the country, the same media undermined democracy during the post election violence. Media monitoring reports revealed that media fuelled the violence. Vernacular radio stations were singled out as fueling ethnic animosity. Most of these followed the position taken by the proprietor, placing media ethics of objectivity, independence and impartiality to the back banner.
Apart from the vernacular radio stations, there are cases of some proprietors of media conglomerate (ownership of a considerable number of media outlets including TV, Radio and newspapers in official , national and local languages) with a nationwide reach publicly supporting the candidature of a political party and its presidential candidate. Would such media remain objective in setting the agenda and shaping public opinion to ensure that democratic principles are upheld?
Should policy makers use the Kenyan scenario to review and inform debate and policy on media regulation and/or media management? In such cases, how should such media be regulated to ensure that a proprietor’s personal opinion and support for a particular party and presidential candidate does not undermine free and fair elections. How can the content of vernacular radio stations be managed to ensure that what is broadcast does not undermine but underpin democracy? Is it time media owners went back to the drawing board and revisit the topic of media regulation to ensure that media freedom is not undermined but media is strengthened to play their role in democratic development?