Every third day of May, the world of media stops a beat to mark the Press Freedom Day. Unesco Secretary General usually leads the way by issuing a statement to recognise the success in pursuit of media freedom, and also drawing attention to challenges still to be overcome. Last year, the world converged in Jakarta, Indonesia and this year the ceremony took place in Accra, Ghana.
In a sense it was a coming home for the ceremony because the important acknowledgement of the challenges of the media was conceived in Africa—Windhoek, Namibia—and the declaration proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly in 1993. Then, as it is now in some parts of the world, it was a declaration viewed, particularly by northern democracies as a challenge of the economies of the south.
Across Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, dictators then sat pretty on seats of power. But a lot has since changed. Most of those dictators have fallen and their place taken by, in some cases, faltering democracies, which, even in their weaknesses, are still way better for the freedom of the media and expression than their predecessors.
Danger seems to lurk elsewhere. Who knew the beacon of freedom, United States, would one day elect, as president, Donald Trump a former reality show host, media made but who would turn out to be among few US leaders who show hostility towards the profession? Today, the cry for a world where the media is free is not strange to the US horde of the press.
Yet as Kenyan journalists gathered across the country to mark this significant day, there was a notable disappointment in the lack of creative thinking in how changing times are affecting the press and how we should bring creative energy to keep this sacred space.
Although this date was officially proclaimed 25 years ago, the gems of its origin were planted much earlier. The voice of the then American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, echo through the chambers of this thought in Article XIX on the Declaration of Human Rights that she championed. Others added their voices to it.
Today the very freedoms are threatened, probably like never before, but by surreptitious forces that had either not assumed their current mode of operation or were not recognised as a threat before.
The public has become cynical with respect to the media—and that is a threat. The notion of media now requires redefinition (a challenge to the academics): With the advent of citizen journalism and crowd sourcing, it is not even clear whether journalism is a profession (some have argued it never was one anyway).
Yet on World Press Freedom Day in our own situation, we trained our guns on the old horse—the government. And even then, without focusing on the modern tools that the government is using. In dealing with the media, the government’s suppressive hand has since evolved and become so subtle that sometimes the government sits on the same couch with the media to suppress the later.
Journalism and journalists should evolve and become more nimble just in the same manner that the antagonists of press freedom are. Those who call the shots in the media houses may have never written a good story, not even once, and may not even know what a good story is. But they are adept at reading the balance sheet and that is what they care about. Today, it is their care that has become the obsession of journalists – how to develop new financing models for the media.
Of course journalists cannot be completely blind to economics of the media but is journalism threatened when good stories, told in different forms, are popping up on various platforms or is the money-minting industry the one under threat and poor journalists have been rallied to defend it? Of course jobs are under threat but the art of storytelling does not disappear with the loss of a job.
Next year’s press freedom day in Kenya must evolve to a reflective occasion where the media explores how the old challenges have evolved, what the new challenges are and how to keep the good story flowing.
Writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language & Performing Arts at Daystar University