Once again, the media industry and the journalism profession are on the spot. The industry is undergoing immense pressure made to look like a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is merely an eruption of long-lasting underlying issues.
Journalists are under siege. Journalism in Kenya, just like in the rest of the world, is going through a challenging time technologically, economically and professionally.
Like other sectors, the adverse effects of the coronavirus have not spared the media industry. In addition to harassment and intimidation from within and outside the industry, nearly 400 journalists have been sacked while more that 3,000 have had their salaries and wages reduced by between 20 per cent and 70 per cent. More that 1,000 have gone without wages for the last six months.
With media enterprises having also sacked staff from sales departments, some journalists are being asked to, in addition to filing stories, bring in adverts. Without support for journalists, some media houses are now using content produced by sources themselves – a number of stories, broadcast clips and photos are generated by aides, drivers and bodyguards attached to some sources. Click-bait journalism is on the rise once again, which is a big threat to professional journalism.
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While some of these measures are inevitable, some media executives are taking advantage of the situation to mishandle journalists and violate their rights.
The current instability and massive layoffs have very little to do with professional output and redundancy, as we are made to understand. They are motivated many times by personal and economic missteps that have everything to do with mismanagement and unethical business conduct.
Many of the decisions made by a good number of chief executives and senior managers who run the business side of media enterprises fail to appreciate that journalism is a public good enterprise, and not necessarily a profit-making oriented venture.
Mass sackings, redundancies or poaching in media are not unique or limited to journalists. It is global and inevitable. Indeed, it is not that journalists are seeking favour or sympathy when this happens. It is about a fair process, and respect for known labour and human rights principles and professionalism. Are human resources managers in media houses members of the Human Resources Institute of Kenya? Does this agency take action against members who flout ethics?
Why must reorganisation or re-staffing in media enterprises be dramatic and nasty? Do they care about the corporate brands of their companies? Given the role of the media as a trusted institution by the public, does it ever matter to those dramatising staff re-organisation that this erodes confidence and trust in the sector? The purely economic and factory management approach to running the media business has pushed journalists to the brink. Some firms are chocking under mismanagement.
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In some media houses, editorial, which is the core business of the companies, is the most neglected and under-resourced compared to advertising or commercial departments. The media should clean its house and embrace accountability.
The current onslaught on journalists calls for urgent re-evaluation and improvement of professionalism and accountability, and above all, a better working environment for media practitioners. The media should work towards creating solidarity and a common agenda for the industry. Despite the challenges, many journalists have remained professional in their work, and continue to play the public watchdog role through their articles. Remain afloat against the ongoing turbulence.
–The writer is head of media development and strategy at the Media Council of Kenya