Last week I promised to look at the question of the freedom of the media, one of the twin whipping rods frequently used to flog the less powerful countries.
This is a contentious subject of which there is little agreement apart from the fact that both the media and freedom are necessary. It is viewed differently depending on who is looking at it.
Some media practitioners think that freedom of the media is sacred and should be up there with the ten commandments.
They consider themselves custodians, defenders and sole interpreters of this sacred injunction, and that this self-assigned role gives them rights and privileges above those enjoyed by ordinary human beings. And so, because of this, they are not subject to the same laws and standards of conduct as the rest of us.
Politicians and other public figures have a love-hate relationship with the media. When the media says what they like, especially if it presents them in favourable light, they will sing its praises to high heaven and vow to defend its freedom at whatever cost.
But when they are on the wrong side of media attention, their ire and wrath know no moderation. They will denounce it as biased and malicious and swear to curb its freedom to malign hard-working and law-abiding citizens.
This is hardly surprising as some of these people need media attention and praise to validate their own worth. When the praise is denied, the fragility of their respective personalities is exposed.
For the powerful and those who make it their business to police the conscience of the world, especially that of the less powerful, it is a convenient whipping rod in their hands.
The rest of us are baffled by all the hue and cry when there are more existential issues that merit more attention.
The owners of the various media know better.
For them, the media is not about those high, noble ideals for which people are ready to do battle. It is more basic than that. It is about business and profits. Freedom has a different meaning – the freedom to make money.
And the surprising, even annoying, thing is that the battle over the freedom of the media is supposedly fought on behalf of ordinary people. This is one of those lies.
If I was writing this twenty-five years ago, I would probably be saying that the whole media fredom thing is an intra-bourgeoisie quarrel into which the masses are drawn without their knowledge, interest or will. While probably true, that sort of language is now out of fashion.
So who is right in all this? Does anyone have the right to hold the media as a whip?
On March, 18, 2010, His Highness The Aga Khan provided what, for me, was a very useful definition of what a responsible and useful media should be.
He was speaking in Nairobi at the conference to mark the 50 anniversary of the Nation Media Group on the theme: Media and the African Promise. His words carry weight. He is the owner of the Nation Media Group, without doubt East Africa’s most successful media group.
He was also reflective, perhaps because he was looking at the last fifty years of NMG and charting its future.
The Aga Khan said the goal of the media in the future should be “an Africa in which both goverments and the media respect their appropriate roles.”
He then went on to define what the role for the media is. The most appropriate media for Africa is one which is independent from various interests. He was quick to add that independence “does not mean some sort of reflex opposition.
Not having a special agenda does not imply some counter-agenda. Being independent is not the same thing as being oppositional.”
This is an important qualification because most of those who make the loudest noise about freedom of the media often mean one which sets itself in opposition to the government of the day.
What the Aga Khan went on to say about independent media sounds like it was a reference to some of the media in Rwanda. “Truly independent media,” he said, “cannot be predictably partisan, narrowly politicised, nor superficially personalised.” I do not have to point fingers.
On the hallowed subject of media freedom, he gave some invaluable advice. Freedom..does not mean the moral licence to abuse that freedom.
“It would be a sad thing if the people of Africa in the name of freedom were expected to welcome the worst of media practices whether they are home-grown or imported,” he said.
What then are the qualities of a free, productive and responsible media? It is one which allows spirited debate, conducts intelligent inquiry, makes informed criticism and carries principled disagreement.
Wise words from one who has owned a profitable and independent media in a part of the world where it is often said what he has done is impossible.
Wise words, too, for the conscience and political police, and those who habitually cry wolf to hide their professional incompetence and shortcomings, or solicit financial support for failed businesses to heed.