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State should cushion media from Covid-19 pandemic shocks

By Levi Obonyo
Friday, May 29th, 2020
Media personnel at work. Photo/Courtesy

It is not well in the media; and when it is not well in the media then it is not well with our democracy either. 

Over the past one year, many media houses have let go of their staff. The number of staff losing their jobs have been in the hundreds. But that is only one side of the story.

The other side of the story is the balance sheets. Over the last decade, the profit made by the media houses has been on the decline.

It has been a while since the region’s most profitable group recorded a ten figure profit. 

Things are not looking any better, and it is not a fault of the media. Since Covid-19 started, it is not only the media that that has taken the hit.

Look at the education sector. The salaries are down 80 per cent in one university.

The service industry has been shut down, and when the service sector is not doing well then the media will suffer.

The sector is a major source of revenue for the media through advertisements. Advertising budget is usually one of the first items to face the axe when times are hard.

The other major source of revenue for the media is the government. The State, and its agencies, is one of the main source of advertisement, and this too has not being doing well. 

However, unlike the private sector that has to be sensitive to the market forces and answer to shareholders at the end of the financial year, the State can afford to borrow heavily  to continue providing services.

The State cannot do without the services of the media. When times are good, the two can afford to face up to each other in a spat and tell each other off. But make no mistake, these two cannot do without each other.

The media needs the State to provide regulations and to ensure that everybody is playing within the rules.

No media wants a situation where a bully will show up on the scene and start bulldozing their way around, pushing others out of their spaces; or where rogue citizens will walk to the news stands and simply pick the newspaper or magazine and walk away.

On the other hand, the State will abhor a situation where it has no way of communicating with its citizens, or spinning its story and getting a gullible media to go along with it. They may shout at each other,  but only in public.

It was thus not a surprise that following the arrival of Covid – 19 on our shores, the media was quickly declared one of the critical and essential services. The State was not doing the media any favours; it was simply serving itself.

Given that the State has deep pockets, it can not step back and watch media houses shrink in light of the current economic times.

For the sake of democracy we do not need fewer voices, we need more.

But the media do not only safeguard democracy, they are also economic players.

Media houses may pay taxes, but that is not as important since the government can do without the taxes from media houses.

More critically, media provide gainful employment to thousands of citizens, keeping many potential opinionated educated idlers from the street and channeling their energy to useful controlled space.

In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, since the private sector may not come to the aid of the media, it is the duty, yes, the duty of the government to keep the media vibrant. It does not matter whether it is State or private media.

Government should urge all para state agencies to go out and advertise, and pay the media on time.

Government should give concessions to media including reviewing their statutory fees and license obligations. 

Once the hard times are over, then the spats can resume, after all even that spat is good for the media. It provides content. — The writer is the dean, School of Communications, Daystar University

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