What is next for the media eco-system in Kenya?

It is no secret that the media industry in Kenya is going through challenging times.   While in the past, Kenya’s media has frequently been cited as the strongest in East Africa, thanks to constitutional protections for freedom of the press, a broad plurality of media, and Kenyans’ healthy demand for news and information, this reputation now runs the risk of rapidly fading away. The challenges media are facing range from dealing with dwindling revenues and struggling to adapt to the shift towards digital consumption of news, to partisan ownership and gender imbalance in newsrooms, especially at the editorial level.  These challenges are only compounded by the emergence of a government that is increasingly intolerant of a free press and a public that generally mistrusts the media. 

This should be a concern for all of us, because a key ingredient of good governance and the ability to hold those in government to account is a strong and independent media.  While a lot has been said and written about what is wrong with Kenyan media, there’s very little discussion on what is to be done.  It is now time to have robust conversations on what is required in order to build a media eco-system in Kenya that achieves its full potential as an agenda-setter and public watchdog, and to restore the optimism spurred on by the 2010 Constitution.

As part of the effort to catalyze this conversation, Omidyar Network recently commissioned a report entitled “Strengthening Kenyan Media” that examines the opportunities for a reset, both within existing mainstream outlets that continue to reach majority of the population, and upcoming outlets and individuals who are innovating and testing the boundaries of what it means to be a media outlet.  On a high level, supporting independent media in Kenya today will require mobilizing and uniting journalists interested in the public good, and ensuring they have sustained resources and support.  The report has identified a range of leverage points where supporters may consider investing in the ecosystem. These strategies, which build on, or respond to, the experience and efforts of media actors as detailed in this report, are interconnected.

Amongst the recommendations is the need to create an opportunity, perhaps a physical space, for field-leading practitioners in the media space, civil society, technologists and others to brainstorm and problem solve - a media lab.  A place to build relationships, restore trust amongst various actors crucial to the media eco-system, to provide a place to reflect and to innovate with creative storytelling and partnerships.  Similar models are emerging elsewhere, such as the Nieman Lab in the US, Journalism.co.uk, and the South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP).  We at Omidyar Network are committed to collaborating with local stakeholders to explore what this could look like in Kenya.  

The report also encourages the exploration of new channels for journalists to publish their work, as a way to overcome the fact that self-censorship and government interference are challenges for journalists working in mainstream media outlets.  A number of journalists are already doing this, and new platforms are emerging for instance Africa Uncensored and the Elephant.

Another opportunity would be funding commercially driven content that is grounded in impact in the public interest - from news series, to film, documentaries, comedy, and satire. Shows such as the XYZ Show and Too Early for Birds are interesting explorations in this direction.

Kenya is ripe for a new era of investment in independent media—one that is more strategic, and which takes into account the entire ecosystem of actors that influence media’s work. The high appetite amongst Kenyan citizens for trustworthy, rigorous journalism coupled with a high number of newly independent journalists looking to publish their work is an exciting opportunity. We look forward to driving the conversation forward over the next few months.   

A version of this op-ed was published in Business Daily.  

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