Did some State agency use a local media to tell its story? That is the question all over the social media this week, in regard to media reports on the arrest and prosecution of Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu over alleged corruption-related offences.
In the recent months, there have been many public servants against whom permission has been granted for prosecution. Some are heads and accounting officers of State agencies and ministries. But this week, that broom has crossed bridges and headed for top officials in the Judiciary.
The media is touted as the Fourth Estate but at the core of government are three estates that run the matters of State—the Executive (headed by the Head of State), Legislature (under the Speaker) and Judiciary (Chief Justice). The common understanding is there is separation of powers between the estates.
When this week, Lady Justice Mwilu was arraigned to answer to accusations of impropriety, it was obvious that one of the estates had been hit hard. The implications were grave. But even more interesting was the media’s perceived contribution to the unfolding drama.
As social watchdogs, nothing inhibits the media from smelling and staying on a story for as long as it takes. This is part of its mandate. There is a suspicion the three estates, collectively, are always bent on giving the public a raw deal and thus the fourth comes in to smell any scent of impropriety and to safeguard the interests of the public.
But there is immediate suspicion if the fourth estate is seen to collude with the others to do its bidding particularly if that is against the interest of the public and the common good. The public can be very unforgiving if they realise the fourth estate has ceased to act in the interest of common good but for the good of the other estates.
We have a rich history of how the public has punished the media on sensing it is not acting in the interest of the public. In Kenya, one such victim is a leading broadcaster. The behemoth, with staff running into four digits, has one of the best footprints across the land and the best network for collecting and telling stories.
But the public often looks the other side when it tells stories. Again, not too long ago there was Kenya Times newspaper derided as ‘Kenya Sometimes’. Hardly anything remains of it except memory. The main sins of the two was and continues to be perception they were or are in bed with the Executive and, therefore, not capable of keeping watch of the three estates.
In the lead-up to the dramatic arrest of Mwilu, a certain media house stayed on the story giving updates that, critics say, appeared not in the slightest the work of investigative journalism, but rather the megaphones of a State agency.
The media house is seen to have been gloating at the opportunity to play the megaphone. Hopefully, the claims are unfounded, but if not so, it is a sad beginning for the slippery slope that may be the fate of local media. – Writer is the Dean, School of Communication at Daystar University.