The ‘devil’ in Information law could spark a social revolution in Kenya

One of the most controversial things last year was the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) (KICA) Bill.

Known more simply as the “Media Bill”, it was denounced as a press freedom killer, with its hefty fines on journalists and media houses, and putting the media under the thumb of state apparatchik.

Among the more contentious aspects of the Bill is that a new body, the Communications Authority, will have the power to dictate how much of local content radio and TV should have.

The understanding here is that in the near future, they will be required to broadcast mostly local (read Kenyan) content.

On social media, this idea of more local content has been quite popular, and Kenyans have jeered at TV stations for serving them too much third-rate Latin American soap operas.

My sense is that there is something bigger here. In reality, the media has accidentally been given more power by a government they believe is intent on taking away creative freedom from them.

We have to look only to the USA to appreciate that. Most Americans’ view of themselves and the world is determined not by their government, but by TV and film—or Hollywood in particular.

Hollywood and TV decide who will be the stars of the season.

They decide what is fashionable or not. Often, they decide whom the people shall vote for.

American TV content is over 90 per cent local—and for a while, it was about 60 per cent of local content in the rest of the world where there was independent broadcasting.

Many modern Americans’ understanding of slavery has been shaped by Roots, the mini TV series, and more recent films like Django Unchained and now 12 Years A Slave, in which Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o stars to much acclaim.

In other words, the “local content” provision in the end will be nothing to do with media freedom and Kenyan broadcasting; it is the opening of a contest over the Kenyan mind, over what society thinks of itself, and how it sees itself.

When Nigeria caught the local content bug, it gave birth to Nollywood.

The image Nollywood painted was a society in the grip of superstition; witches; sleazy rich men; cheating men and women; corrupt politicians; evil stepmothers, the whole shebang.

Though these macabre offerings embarrassed some, many Nigerians and Africans saw authenticity somewhere in there.

In this quest for self-understanding, though, now there are slicker, more “international” productions like Jacob’s Cross, a story set in South Africa and Nigeria, of powerful families fighting for control of Africa’s oil.

Kenya is getting to that point.

With digital migration happening sometime this year, with so many new TV channels becoming available, and demand for local content skyrocketing, broadcasters will have to tackle some difficult and even taboo subjects in the country’s history.

Even taboo subjects

For example, who were the true heroes and villains of the Mau Mau rebellion? What ails Kenya?

What devils and angels lurk in Kenyan families? Is Kenyan history as told the truth?

Digital distribution has, to a great extent, taken away broadcasters’ ability to offer, say, a parochial story to the Mountain region, which reinforces local prejudices, and a different one to the Lake region, which also massages the opposite local prejudices there.

This, therefore, is a “dangerous” period, though in a good way.

Dangerous partly because of the government’s new-found appetite for censorship, yes, but mostly because the higher demand put on broadcasters to tell stories that make sense to a wider section of Kenyan society than they have hitherto had to do, means many of them could fail.

The unimaginative will come to grief. The quacks and bigots will be shamed.

But if the broadcasters rise to the occasion, they will easily gain five times more power over how Kenyans think, see themselves, and who they view as a good or bad leader, than they do today.

Because politicians think Kenyan broadcasters will remain narrow-minded and obsessed with chasing pennies without gunning for grand social vision, they don’t appreciate the “local content” gambit is actually the biggest surrender of power they have ever made.

The only uncertainty left is whether the broadcasters will make any lemonade with the lemon they have been handed.

cobbo@ke, & twitter:cobbo3

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