Building The Nation

In line with the festival’s theme of Africa in Self Conversation: Democracy in Culture, the 2nd IREP festival screened Headlines in History, a documentary about the first fifty years of the Nation Media Group, publishers of East Africa’s most widely-read publication, The Daily Nation. The film recalls how the publishing outfit sustained its ethical journalism and managed to expand its operations across the sub-region despite frustration from government forces and occasional public discontent.

Borne out of a need to provide Kenya’s indigenous population with their own voice in the face of overwhelming colonial censorship, the story of The Nation is itself the story of African independence. The paper debuted in 1959 thanks to a chance encounter between a preacher and an activist. A community paper Taifa Leo was acquired and became the Daily Nation. As the years went by, the Daily Nation proved that it was here to stay.

The documentary shows how the newspaper placed itself at the top of news coverage by constantly breaking news ahead of everyone else and having exclusive images of events that heavily influenced Kenyan life and government policy. These included the murders of Tom Mboya and J.M Kariuki, the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi’s swearing-in as president and the Saba Saba protests that ended the one-party system.

In the course of doing their work, staff of the paper suffered multiple arrests and numerous attempts by Moi’s government especially, to silence or weaken this voice of the East African majority. Undeterred, the Nation Media Group spread its wings into Uganda and Tanzania acquiring the Daily Monitor and Mwananchi respectively. They also established a broadcast and media division, diversifying into TV and radio. In 1994, the group also began publishing The East African.

The Nation’s biggest task came however in 2007 during Kenya’s post-election crisis involving President Mwai Kibaki’s supporters and the opposition. Buoyed by its responsibility to its readers, and conscious of the media’s role in society, the Nation joined its voice to brokering peace. Ending on this note, Headlines in History, is not just the 50-year anniversary of an important publication but a celebration of the important role the press can play in sustaining effective governance.

Echoing this theme was a panel titled ‘Media and Nation Building.’ The panel comprised president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors Gbenga Adefaye; former Managing Editor at NEXT Kadaria Ahmed; writer Tolu Ogunlesi; performer and activist Ben Tomoloju and Denrele Niyi Arts Editor of the National Mirror. Lanre Idowu, publisher of Media Review was the moderator.

Tomoloju described the process of nation building as a partnership between the media and the nationalists. This partnership however broke down when the press wanted to properly carry out its duty.  He stressed the importance for the media to understand its role and to do it well, that if a nation is in crisis, the press itself risks becoming an enemy of the people.

For Ogunlesi, the press’ role was a double-edged sword that apart from nation building, also involves some “pulling down.” This call for high ethical standards was a motif in the discussion. Another constant point was the call for innovative approaches to journalism. Emphasised by Ahmed, she said training, improved wages and embracing new media would aid quality journalism.

Ogunlesi raised the issue of how much of his/her proclivities a journalist can bring to their profession at a time of crisis. Other issues that came up at the panel included whether or not the motivation for newspaper ownership was ego-driven or not. Government policy and regulatory laws were also discussed.

According to Adefaye, in recent times, owning a newspaper was motivated by a desire to claim the public space. Ahmed said the influence of the proprietors was itself sometimes unhelpful in the practice of healthy journalism.

Idowu then asked if the advent of social media plays a possible role in this mission and whether the press was to be feared or respected. For Tomoloju, respect is desirable especially regarding being a voice to the voiceless. Adefaye’s response was that, “We should work towards being respected by our readers and feared by the bad boys in our system.”

As part of the self-examination process, the panellists said it was important for the press itself to work within the boundaries of the law, ensure they had their facts right before going to press and develop an overall professional attitude to their work. It was also an opportunity to sound out their colleagues in the broadcast media to wake up to their responsibility to the audience and try to catch up with the print arm.

Tomoloju rounded off the discussion with the words, “Practice should be in the best of national interest.”


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