In some parts of the world, it is still possible to silence a journalist with a sharp blow to the side of the head. But as newspapers the world over struggle with the financial disruption of digital technologies, governments are finding new ways of controlling the press. Murder is messy. Money is tidy.
John Kituyi, a brave, persistent local newspaper editor in Kenya, was a victim of the old-fashioned method in April 2015, when the sixty-two-year-old from Eldoret in western Kenya was killed while preparing to publish the results of an investigation that could have embarrassed leading figures in Kenya’s national government. An assailant with a blunt object brought Kituyi’s life, the story, and the newspaper itself to a sudden end.
Though the threat of such physical violence remains a concern for journalists even in one of Africa’s most developed nations, a less bloody mechanism for constraining the free media is increasingly being used. Murder can lead to awkward questions, and if the victim is a journalist or a lawyer, may attract international attention. But as revenues drain away from traditional media because of the inroads of digital technologies, the use of financially induced self-censorship—we might abbreviate it to “fiscing”—can also ensure that journalists are more “reasonable” in their reporting.
That could well have been the Kenyan government’s actual motive when it set up a single government agency in 2015 to act as a conduit for all advertising in the country’s newspapers, enabling a centralized body to turn the flow of money on or off. Journalists in Kenya say the country’s political classes are ensuring that “unhelpful” coverage will be effectively penalized—i.e., that the money for reporting will dry up.
Like their counterparts around the world, Kenyan newspapers are feeling the punishing economic consequences of readers and revenues moving online. The income the media organizations receive from all Kenyan government sources is estimated to represent at least 25 percent of their total advertising revenue—or would, if the government actually paid. In fact, the new advertising agency is not paying the bills. The failure of the money to arrive is, according to Tom Mshindi, editor in chief of the country’s most influential newspaper, the Nation in Nairobi,…
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