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State must protect citizens rights to access information

By Levi Obonyo
Friday, November 8th, 2019

Accessing media content is a universal human right concern and policies must ensure that every citizen has access to it. This is at the heart of some of the resolutions on rights of people passed by the UN and is covered by the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights signed by African governments almost 40 years ago.

A progressive society requires that all its members participate in the decision-making process and contribute meaningfully to social development. To do this from an informed position, individual members of society need to have access to all available information.

 Access to information was almost guaranteed in recent past in Africa, even when the information in question was slanted.  Governments controlled the airwaves and by extension radio and television. In most instances, they did not only control the hardware of the broadcast but the content as well. Scholars of African media have decried how dictators reduced the national broadcaster into little more than the mouthpiece of African presidents and their supporters.  This ensured that the public had access to only what the president and his henchmen wanted the public to know.

The hand of democracy, reforms and liberalisation that led to greater access to the airwaves has reduced the stranglehold of some African governments of the media houses. In Kenya, this started to happen nearly 30 years ago with the licensing of KTN and later other private broadcast stations. Today, there are nearly 90 TV stations on air and more than twice that number of radio stations are broadcasting across the country. But the increase in the number of stations on air has not necessarily meant more information. Rather, in most cases, it has led to less information.

In days when KBC ruled the airwaves—when there was only one voice—one was assured of approved news from not only across the country, but the continent and the world. This still happens in Tanzania. But in Kenya, radio stations are hyperlocal and TV stations are increasingly not any different despite being the only truly national media that the country still has.

But the cost of accessing TV content is making this worse. The pricing regime of accessing the content is designed to privilege the content distributor at the expense of the consumer and the content generator. 

Following migration from analogue to digital broadcast nearly four years ago, the mode of distributing content shifted from free access to subscription. In the regime of free access, people paid for content through the backdoor—whether that was through TV fees at the point of sale or monthly through electricity bills in some cases. 

But now, consumers must pay content distributor on a monthly basis to access content. However, on the other hand, content generators must also pay the distributor to carry the content. The distributor is thus eating from both ends. 

In some regulatory regimes it is the subscriber that pays the subscription fees for access of content. Given that distribution is an expensive affair, it is enough that the advertiser covers for the content generator the cost of generation.

In the meantime access to free-to-air content should be guaranteed to cushion the underprivileged citizens who cannot afford the access fees. This is yet to happen. When subscription elapses, a consumer is blocked from accessing news. This fundamentally undermines the access rights. 

The regulatory authorities should ensure that broadcast terrain in the country abides by the legal requirements to safeguard the access to content by the economically vulnerable members of society. Access to multiplicity of voices is the only way to guarantee that citizens are informed and enable them to participate meaningfully in social development.

—The writer is the Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University