By Ogova Ondego
Published June 4, 2007
It was one of the most important events to have taken place in Kenya in recent times. And it was all in the interest of journalism, radio and Africa. Yet the mainstream media in Kenya largely ignored the BBC Africa Radio Awards that was aired live from Nairobi, the heart of the commercial capital of eastern Africa, on May 26, 2007.
There is no denying the fact that radio is the most popular medium of communication in Africa today. Even in remote parts of the mother continent without basic infrastructure including electricity, cattle herders, night guards, mama mboga vegetable sellers, mkokoteni hand-cart operators and street and slum dwellers are likely to be found listening to programmes on their inexpensive single- or two-dry battery Chinese-made radio sets.
African Media Development Initiative: Research Summary Report, a mass media survey conducted by BBC World Service Trust in 17 African countries and released in April 2007, notes that radio is “the most accessible and the most consumed media in all  countries”.
The research further notes that radio allows owners to expand the broadcast spectrum beyond the urban areas, avoid the economic barriers to consumers posed by high-priced newspaper or TV subscriptions, and to address the high illiteracy rates in the population.
This being the case, any one interested in developing Africa through the mass media would choose radio as the medium of choice. But to be effective, radio has to be staffed by well trained professionals.
Though the media in Africa may be vibrant, African Media Development Initiative: Research Summary Report adds that Africa is witnessing an increase in the number of untrained and unqualified individuals working as ‘journalists’. While the number of journalists in Nigeria has risen by 100%, for example, Congo-Kinshasa has had a 113% growth in people calling themselves ‘journalists’.
The BBC Africa Radio Awards, meant to “celebrate the best of English-language radio journalism” in Africa, came at a time when the mass media in Kenya were up in arms against the Government of President Mwai Kibaki over a Media Bill viewed as seeking to gag the freedom of expression.
Calling “upon the government to immediately withdraw the Bill” it said smacked of authoritaniasm, Sunday Nation newspaper described the document as “a shoddy and mediocre piece of legislation that would wipe out the freedoms of the press and speech as we know them in Kenya today.”
Over the years, it has been our contention that media practice in Kenya ought to be regulated. This is more so in the 21st century that is witnessing an unparalleled media growth and convergence that allows just about any one to generate content for the media without ever having been to a media school. People are making films, taking press images and reporting on events using their cell phones, personal computers and camcorders.
In such a scenario where the artefact no longer defines content, is it not necessary for some regulation as the Media Bill 2007 suggests? To celebrate the best of journalism as the BBC Africa Radio Awards set out to do calls for standards, benchmarks or rules of the game against which to gauge performance.
It cannot be stressed enough that media operators must be trained to guard against sensationalism or misrepresentation of facts. Besides talent and training, these practitioners should be socialised in the value for truth, fairness and objectivity.
The curriculum for institutions training media operators should be standardised.
Upon graduation, journalists should be registered and licensed by a professional body to regulate their practice. Should a member engage in misconduct, this body would either de-register him or her, revoke his or her license or take him or her to court.
Journalists insist they are professionals, why do they not have a regulating body the way lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals do? Why do they allow comedians, clowns, musicians and thespians to invade their field?
For journalism to be respected, it should be accountable to the society in which it serves. And this can only be achieved when media practitioners are governed by commonly agreed upon professional standards.
In 2007, the National Rainbow Coalition government of Mwai Kibaki finds itself in a similar position like that of the Kenya African National Union of Daniel arap Moi that was in 1995 vilified when it drafted two Press bills–Press Council of Kenya Bill, Kenya Mass Media Commission Bill–that were viewed as an attempt to muzzle the Press.
RELATED: Rwanda grapples with Social Cohesion
What detractors refuse to recognise is the fact that there is nowhere in the world where freedom of expression is unqualified. Even in the United States, the so-called ‘home of the freest press’, freedom of the Press is restrained by the laws of libel, obscenity, privacy and the licensing of broadcast stations. This is despite the fact that the First Amendment to the US Constitution forbids the government to make any laws “abridging the freedom of the Press.”
So why did Kenyan media not seize the moment and use the BBC Africa Radio Awards as a platform to champion the cause, freedom and responsibilities of journalism bearing in mind that the pan African awards scheme was meant to recognise and celebrate radio journalism?
Only two of the seven prizes created by Ghanaian designer, Jery Obuobi, were scooped by Kenyans despite the country boasting a ‘vibrant radio scene’.
“I had to reflect the vibrancy of broadcasting in Africa. It’s been a challenge but it’s thrilling to see the trophies in the hands of people who deserve them, the people who bring radio alive,” Obuobi said.
In the past ArtMatters.Info has reported on comedians taking over the radio in Uganda. This appears to have happened in Kenya, too.
As children many of us were advised by our parents and teachers to look up to radio to set standards in the use of acceptable, standard language, be it Kiswahili or English, to ease communication. We expected radio to assist us in affirming values like fair play, and to inform, educate and entertain us.
With the freeing of the airwaves in the 1990s, we thought the future could only be brighter. But media liberalisation only spawned a multiplicity of ethnic, religious and age-based FM stations that employ comedians specialising in ethnic accents who take themselves to be more important than the programmes they are presenting with almost every sentence punctuated with “You’re hanging out with me Parrot”, “I am Parrot”, “This is Parrot”.
Issues get lost in such chest-thumping shenanigans of people who call themselves ‘celebrities’ just because they speak in a microphone with head-phones around their ears. Such ‘celebrities’ make me wonder why kindergarten teachers, matatu drivers and farmers don’t refer to themselves as celebrities despite the important role they play in nation-building.
‘Leading’ radio stations in Kenya rely on clowns to drive their early morning programmes–dubbed ‘Breakfast Show’–forward.
While Kiss FM has baby J Nyambs (Walter Mong’are), Easy FM Mdomo Baggy (Morris Ochieng), and Citizen FM Oloibon (Allan Namisi) and Mwala (Davis Mwambili), West FM has Mshamba, Classic FM Mwalimu King’ang’i and KBC Kiswahili Service has Alphonse Makacha dot Makokha as presenters.
Alongside comedians come musicians, music-star-wanna-be, actors/actresses, models and Emcees. They include self-proclaimed His Majesty the Mighty King Kong, Talia ‘The Night Nurse’ Oyando, Nini ‘The Love Doctor’ Wacera, Maryanne Kariuki, Sheila Mwanyigha, Debbie Asila, Shaffie Weru, and Sanaipei Tande.
These ‘FM celebrities’ all serve the same menu of chit-chat, shout, boast, play same American gangsta music, or local versions of it, and offer listeners ‘bribes’ like money, cell phones and air time not to tune out on them.
Local FM stations have irritated many people and turned them into men and women who merely tolerate them in public places where they have no access to the dial and to permanently tune in to BBC on their home transistor radios, car stereos, cell phones, and office computers.
Yet being important, FM radio can be salvaged through initiatives like the BBC Africa Radio Awards. That was why I was disappointed when the media in Kenya failed to support the awards that went out on May 26, 2007.
Perhaps out of the realisation that their ‘comedians and clowns’ had not featured in the BBC Africa Radio Awards, Kenya’s ‘leading radio stations’ did not talk about the awards ceremony that BBC Focus on Africa and Network Africa editor, Joseph Warungu, presented live to an estimated 20 million listeners across Africa.
Though the event ended a clear 30 minutes ahead of the KTN and NTV ‘prime news’, these TV stations did not include it in their news bulletin. Why Nation and Standard newspapers also failed to cover the event the following day or in their subsequent issues remains a mystery.
Back to the BBC Africa Radio Awards, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana shared out the prizes in an electrifying ceremony graced by musicians Thandiswa Mazwai, 2Face Idibia and Valerie Kimani.
While the News Journalist of the Year went to Esther Mbondo for what the judges described as ‘Campaigning journalism at its best,’ the winner of the Sports Journalist of the Year, James Mwangi Wokabi of Kenya’s Capital FM, was singled out for his versatility and knowledge “in reporting, presenting and producing on a wide range of sports, from boxing and football to track and athletics”.
For sensitively covering “the shocking story of an eight-year-old girl who was raped by an elderly relative,” the judges gave the Best Local On-Air Campaign of the Year award to Joy 99.7 FM of Accra, Ghana.
Citi FM, also of Accra, Ghana, received Best Interactive Show of the Year accolades for successfully “mixing studio guests, outside broadcasts, phone-ins and text messages to ensure it’s tapping into the stories the local community wants to hear.”
South Africa’s Talk Radio 702 of Johannesburg was declared Radio Station of the Year while Qaanitaah Dramat of Cape Town’s Radio 786 got the Young Broadcaster of the Year award.
Describing Radio 702 as “A confident and professional station which uses its immense resources to change people’s lives through broadcasting and community activities,” the judges said Dramat is “an extremely lively broadcaster who is clearly ambitious to succeed.”
The New Radio Station of the Year award was grabbed by Radio Pacis of Arua in northern Uganda for what the jury described as “A fine example of what a community radio station based outside the capital” can achieve with “a small staff and modest resources.” That despite these challenges, Radio Pacis “still addresses challenging local issues.”
The jury, led by retired BBC Focus on Africa and Network Africa editor Robin White, included Prof Dora Akunyili (Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria), Ferial Haffajee (Editor of Mail & Guardian newspaper of South Africa), and Danston Tido Mhando (Managing Director of Tanzania Broadcasting Services).
Additional reporting by Bobastles Owino Nondi