Radio may be popular but the rural press is not dead.
A Roman Catholic priest in Machakos County is standing trial for the attempted murder of a fellow priest. This is a rare story, but it is hardly known because national media has, for some reason, entirely ignored it. We stumbled on it on the Front Page of The Anchor, a privately-owned monthly newspaper that covers Ukambani.
That is not an isolated case. Kenya’s mainstream media generally pays attention to what happens in the big towns. Rural stories are usually small and predictable, unless, of course, a big politician says something or there is a disaster. Some media houses have moved to remedy the bias: NTV pioneered this with the weekly County Edition.
But, still, detailed reporting of rural Kenya remains scanty and when done it is usually clichéd. For instance, on April 19, 2011, Nation posted on its website an article by Emman Omari about Kisii County, titled ‘Welcome to the tiny land of plenty.’ “Whenever there is hunger in other places like Machakos, Makueni and northern Kenya, Kisii is the county where hunger is not in the vocabulary in spite of pressure on the land. Small-scale tea farmers sell to three factories; at Rianyamwamu, Kenyerere and Tendere,” the report said. It went on to describe “the Switzerland of Africa” where tarmac roads meander around the ridges and through the valleys.
That was fantastic, of course. “How does one sit to write a piece like this, professing local knowledge, yet [the story] is replete with basic inaccuracies?” a reader wondered. “One, the Gusii people sell their tea to more than just three factories. Secondly, it is untrue that it takes 30 minutes to traverse the entire land from any point; and, three, I do not see the many tarmacked roads that the writer refers to.”
With the mainstream media largely focused on the big national story, the smaller regional newspapers play an important role in telling local stories. The Anchor focuses on lower Eastern Province but circulates in Nairobi as well. “The mainstream newspapers are too big for communities, or regions for that matter,” says Martin Masai, The Anchor’s publisher who is also the managing director of the Kamaba language radio station Mbaitu FM. “A national newspaper has no time, space and proximity to cover issues affecting local people. This is due to lack of common interest. For instance, what interests people from Eastern region may not interest people from other parts of the country,” he explains.
Masai’s view is shared by Hassan M’Mbetsa Beja, who teamed up with other local journalists last year to publish Pambazuko, a 16-page Kiswahili newspaper targeting readers at the Kenyan Coast. The paper was restarted last September and aims at serving Kiswahili readers. “The region in particular lacks diversified forms of authoritative print media,” Beja says. The region needs an independent newspaper dedicated to information about coastal issues and the local people, their interests and future. “This is something that is not possible in the mainstream press,” he says.
“The regional press is faster in reaching people because it is homegrown and run by insiders who can easily get firsthand information,” says Masai. A local paper could scrutinize government tendering in constituencies or public services because it has the space and time to do it, unlike the daily national press which operates within strict deadlines.
Another remarkable advantage of the small local press is the possibility of putting into context government policies. Masai says that a lot of information from the government that is meant for the local people usually doesn’t reach them because there are no adequate means of reaching them. The regional press serves that purpose. The Anchor, for example, pays particular attention to the use of devolve funds such as CDF.
Beja points out that current trends shows a growing interest among Kenyans in local media. “This explains why vernacular FM radio stations have been performing well in their main regions of coverage. The same applies to Taifa Leo and Taifa Juma Pili which have a high circulation at the coast only second to Daily Nation.”
But doesn’t the the fast growth of vernacular radio stations threaten the regional press? Masai doesn’t think so. “FM stations do not offer much in terms of detail. They are not so interrogative,” says Masai, a former managing editor at the defunct Kenya Times newspaper. The regional press offers what vernacular FM station do not have, that is, a deep analysis of information regarding local people.
It is an important function but not an easy one. One needs deep pockets, tenacity and some luck. Beja’s Pambazuko has died and resurrected many times. The paper was initially published in 1999 in black and white. Though well received by many coast readers, the paper did not stay on the newsstands for long. It came back in 2003 and stayed for six months. Beja had teamed up with then Minister for Tourism the late Hon Karisa Maitha and was sure he was headed for roaring success. But Maitha’s sudden death plunged the paper into a crisis. It would be seven years before Pambazuko resurrected again.
Masai, like Beja, started off with his savings. “To me The Anchor is not a business; it is something that I delight in and produce out of necessity for the people of Eastern province,” he says. It is not just a paper for Kamba people but also for people who are interested in Ukambani region.
But money is not the only issue. A publication has to be credible to earn the confidence of its readers. That requires a pool of good journalists. Needless to say, they are not easy to get. Masai says he uses local reporters working for the mainstream media. Beja, on the other hand tries to tap into the expertise of local professionals such as lawyers and doctors enrich the content of his publication.
Despite the challenges, it appears then that the small local newspapers aren’t about to die forever. In fact the history of the Kenyan press goes back to the early years of colonialism when African and Indian publications appeared to champion the concerns of their communities.
The East African Chronicle published by Ambalal Desai influenced the likes of Harry Thuku, Jomo Kenyatta and Achieng Oneko to launch their own publications. These alternative newspapers became the medium through which views counter to the official settler line were disseminated. Alarmed by this, the colonial government launched district publications to counter independent vernacular newspapers.
After independence, the government recognized the unique role of the rural press in disseminating information to foster development. In 1974, the Rural Press Extension Project was started by the government in collaboration with UNESCO. Years later the project collapsed. “The opportunity for exploiting rural or regional press is very ripe and it is a challenge to journalists out there to take the initiative,” says Masai.