Government set to revive state-run regional papers

The government has announced plans to revive regional newspapers. Director of Information Gwaro Ogaro said the publications would promote integration of communities, according to a KNA report published in My.Gov last week.

Kenya’s state-run rural press project goes back to 1974, a joint initiative with Unesco. The UN educational and cultural agency handed over the project to the government in 1991. At that time there were 11 rural newspapers serving about 85 per cent of the population, according to Regional Publications head Winifred Kitonga.

But all those newspapers folded over time.

The government of Mwai Kibaki attempted to revive the publications about ten years ago but the initiative floundered. Instead, the state ended up publishing a weekly newspaper called Kenya Today.

The paper ran for three years and ceased publication in December 2011, amid claims of misappropriation of taxpayer’s money.

Since last year, the government has been circulating the free weekly newspaper My.Gov. It carries adverts and articles about government programmes and opportunities for the youth and other groups.

From this very brief outline, it is certain that government press has not fared well. Matters are complicated by the fact that around the world advances in information and communications technologies are proving a big challenge in running print publications. There is the power of social media to contend with – and of course the private mainstream media with the money and long experience in these matters.

Director of Information Gwaro (Picture above) apparently did not give details about how and when the proposed revival of the rural press will happen, especially at a time when the government has announced austerity measures due to ballooning public expenditure.

A case can be made for vibrant government media. A graphic circulating in social media last week showed that most of Kenya’s media houses are private entities largely owned by or connected to politicians. That means the bulk of information consumed by the public is in private hands. If information is power, it is certain that media owners wield immense influence on citizens’ awareness of and choices about public affairs.

The government ought to invest in media outlets that exclusively serve public, non-partisan interest. Whether newspapers can play this role effectively is, however, open to debate.

The performance of KBC over the years does not inspire much optimism. It has suffered from inadequate funding and poor management for a long time. The public broadcaster’s managers appeared before the Senate ICT committee in July and painted a picture of a crippled institution.

KBC is groaning under the weight a humongous loan it got from Japan way back in 1989, which has now grown to over Sh40 billion. That was 30 years ago.

The corporation is unable to remit statutory charges to relevant authorities. It has not paid Sh205 million to Kenya Revenue Authority despite deducting the money from its employees.

KBC management says the broadcaster spends Sh180 million every month on recurrent expenditure. But it makes only half of that: Sh90 million.

The corporation has not paid Sh127 million for satellite operations. Deductions from employees are not remitted to Saccos. Nor does KBC remit staff pension contributions.

The broadcaster’s woes should serve as a cautionary tale about state-run media in the era of ICTs and a liberalised industry.

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