The meaning of “responsible journalism” can be debated within a context of media freedom and fragile social cohesion, but the starting point always needs to be media freedom. Despite their if’s and but’s, the dignitaries at the Kenya conference went along with what was, in effect, a major celebration of media freedom. That’s progress, albeit still only symbolic.
For instance, the company had to pursue negotiations for more than 10 years in order to be allowed to enter the broadcasting business.
And in neighbouring Uganda, where the group owns The Monitor newspaper (that competes with government paper New Vision), it’s not always guaranteed how much leeway there is for press freedom.
Highlighting the challenges was conference speaker David Dadge of the International Press Institute. He pointed out an inverse correlation between the press freedom ranking of different African countries, and the number of years their presidents had held onto power.
The Nation company founder, Aga Khan, said the firm’s survival had depended on both good journalism and on convincing governments that there was a difference between being independent, and being oppositional.
However, several voices in the conference’s Twitter stream complained that The Nation group had not always been sufficiently independent.And a study by Connie Kisuke, whose research I supervised, has shown the flagship paper to be weak on reflecting the voices of women and ordinary Kenyans.
Yet notwithstanding these criticisms, the 50th birthday event succeeded in getting political bigwigs — their reservations aside — to pay lip-service to press freedom. That makes it just a little bit harder for old habits of press control to be revived.
The dividends of this are of benefit not just to media houses like The Nation, but also to African societies at large, and to the international image of Africa.
This point was underlined, indirectly, by remarks from the floor by Richard Dowden, director of the UK’s Royal African Society.
A former Africa Editor of The Economist, he disclaimed personal responsibility for his publication’s infamous cover of Africa as “the hopeless continent”. Although he had personally witnessed terrible things in Africa, said Dowden, there had never been despair and hopelessness.
What the continent needed, Dowden proposed, were media images of hope arising from normal life in Africa, which could then balance out the bad stories. No one, he said, thought the USA was in chaos just because of the New Orleans floods. There had been a prior stock of different stories there, to offset that impression.
The Kenyan conference itself provided a visible manifestation of Dowden’s thesis. It played a part in the gradual consolidation of press freedom as a norm in Africa. That’s certainly a story worth telling.