The Role of Community Media in Fostering Constitutionality

Everyone has a weakness for something, and mine is the medieval. I enjoy watching films and documentaries about valiant knights who slew dragons, or scaled castle walls to rescue damsels in distress, or took to the woods to rob the rich and give the poor. Ancient wars, of honor and chivalry, when men were men and their words meant what they meant and mostly fought for unworthy kings; when kings and nobility moved men, and history; when common folk stood up to their kings and queens and freed themselves from their yokes. Which brings me to my all time favorite, The Game of Thrones, a much recommended watch, which tells a tale of noble families and their quest to rule the mystical Westeros, made up of 7 kingdoms. My other weakness is planting seeds. Especially in young nubile minds. Seeds of ideas and new ways of thinking. There is a certain sense of satisfaction watching the eyes of young people light up as they get consumed in their ‘’aha’’ moments. The best way of doing this planting usually involves use of art, film, photography, music, theatre and dance. Community media.

Currently, I am undertaking a modest assignment on behalf of a media organization which trained journalists last year on issues of the constitution and governance, and the preliminary results are very interesting, and telling, and forms the basis of this article. The journalists training focused on The Bill of Rights, Devolution, Public Participation and the Constitutional Amendment process. While I will not speculate on the outcome of this survey in this article, I must however acknowledge that one of its unintended outcomes has been opening up my eyes to the gaps and opportunities that exists for community   media in promoting dialogue and mobilizing social actions that enhance public awareness and participation on issues surrounding their governance, especially at the county level. One of the key provisions in our constitution, after all, is devolution.

But, first to the basics. What is community media? Its classical definition according to UNESCO is

An alternative medium to public and commercial media, that engage in a social agenda amplifying views and concerns about context specific issues and facilitating public platforms for debate and discussion

Some of the characteristics of community media are that they are independent, community owned and run media and more importantly are accountable to the communities they serve. Community media is therefore one that is operated in the community, for the community, about the community and by the community. A community can be territorial or geographical or can be a group of individuals with a common interest who are not necessarily living in one defined territory.
So, what does all this mean? Many things, chief being that community media, in its truest classical definition either does not exist in Kenya or does so in such an extremely limited form and space that this existence is insignificant. Granted there is the big Digital Migration in progress, which is expected to be as spectacular as its richer wildebeest cousin’s at the Mara, at least in terms of the result, but the truth is for the moment, the media landscape is a mostly mainstream affair. There are many “local” FM stations but these are not necessarily community media, since the only thing local about them remains the language of broadcast. One of the many discussions which Kenyans have buried their collective heads in the sand over is whether broadcasting in the local language is a good or bad thing, or a good thing with a little bad in it or a bad thing with a little good in it. (This will be the subject of another article. Hopefully). Another meaning to this is that we have to find an alternative that marries critical elements of community media – for and about the community – with mainstream or public and commercial media. The question is, can there be a hybrid of the two? In the classical sense, an absolute no, but in present day Kenya context, a necessary yes. How to, you ask? It is already happening, if I am to believe what the journalists are telling me. Armed with their new-found understanding of constitutional issues, most of them have used the power of the pen, and gift of the gab on local FM radio airwaves to breathe life into these issues. With spectacular results. None which I am at liberty to mention at this moment in time.
The Constitution of Kenya has 18 Chapters and 6 Schedules. None is more important than

Chapter 4 (Bill of Rights’) Article 35 – Access to Information. Every citizen has the right of access to information held by the State and information held by another person and required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom.

Beyond information, perhaps even more key is access. To help us think through this, let’s talk about access. How does one define access? Is availability access? According to the Commission for Revenue Allocation Kenya County Fact Sheets, June 2013, 2nd Edition, the county average for population with secondary education is only 12.7%, compared to 66.6% with primary education. About 66.4% can read and write. It is not indicated whether they can read and write in Swahili, English or their native language. The most obvious question to ask becomes, in what language is the information held by the State? Where is it? In what form is it? What are the examples of said information held by the State or another person required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom? Our Constitution is considered to be very progressive, and may be modeled on others that service more modern and progressive societies than ours – those that assume all of its citizens are educated; those that assume that all its citizens have internet, electricity, public libraries and good roads. In other words, our Constitution provides in words (no pun intended), that which our society and economy cannot provide in deeds. This means, that in as much as the Constitution provides for the citizens’ access to information, it does not factor in their other peculiarities like ability to read and write, access to electricity (only 22.7% of households have electricity), physical location of that information (could be available in an office 20 kilometers away).

Having painted that rather bleak outlook, it is my duty to bring in a bit of sunshine in the form of community media. What opportunities exist to leverage the shortcomings of access to information as outlined in the bleak section? Radio is easily the most accessed medium of accessing information, perhaps because its technology is cheap, has a wide reach and is extremely versatile in terms of application. Community radio becomes the most attractive media platform to use to package and provide critical information to citizens that they need to exercise their rights and freedoms. Earlier, I had mentioned a marriage of necessity between elements of community media and the mainstream media. It is possible to design 15-minute radio shows in locally accessible language(s) that allow presenters a platform to facilitate public discussions and debate on issues that should be in the public domain. A favorite topic for discussion is usually money and how it is spent. Is it possible to design a radio show that breaks down County Finance Bills in the context of Public Finance Management Act, 2012 or discusses public participation requirements or roles of county executive committee members and MCAs, Governors, Senators and MPs? The next most crucial thing that community media does, other than leveraging community voices on county and national discourse is it provides a channel for feedback. How does what the community voices say count? Do the responsible duty bearers respond and react to their voices? In this manner, community media already begins the journey of accountability. Other community media forms are community newsletters through which community members express and share views and information, in a language that is easily accessible, and a distribution mechanism to ensure as many members have access to the copies. Another engaging format is use of videos to generate dialogue on specific issues affecting the community. This is a proven way of not only entertaining, but inspiring and educating communities as well. Needless to say, it’s a more resource intensive approach that requires investment in community-based video production and designing effective outreach and monitoring strategies, but guarantees attitudinal, behavioral and knowledge shifts, critical for sustained social mobilization and citizen engagement. Community media recognizes the communities’ information needs but also the cultural contexts that influence how such information can be packaged and distributed in the most effective and sustainable manner.

Still on the structure of access, perhaps it’s time for a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Bill that should be enacted to support the provisions of The Bill of Rights Article 35 – Access to Information? Many people mistakenly imagine that Kenya Broadcasting Service (KBC) is a public broadcasting service. Its just owned by the Government, and mostly perpetuates its propaganda, even though it seems to have a curious existence at the moment, as its relationship with the Government is not very well defined, or robust for that matter. Or it’s just another media house struggling to make money. Anyway, a public broadcast service is supposed to be financed by the Government to provide radio and TV broadcasts that are in the public interest, even if it means being critical to the policies of the Government. Such an example is USA’s National Public Radio (NPR). A PBS can fill gaps that community media should but can’t due to constraints and limitations including financing, media ownership, editorial independence and of course business interests. A PBS would address the dilemma presented by the fact that Kenya has 47 county governments yet all of its mainstream media are still centralized. How effective can it be in doing its job of being a watchdog?

So, back to my favorite weakness – Game of Thrones. In the struggle for power and glory, numerous kings and lords, knights and princes, priests and princesses cut and make deals, sell their subjects. Shields and spears were common currencies for purveying deaths of enemies in their quest to rule mystical Westeros. Back closer home, the shield and spears are emblazoned on our coat of arms, and flag. May they be the purveyors of truth and let the light of information shine upon magical Kenya, for the night is long and dark.

 This article appeared first on Linkedin Pulse on May 11, 2015
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