As editor-in-chief of the Kenya-based Nation Media Group – the largest independent media house in East Africa – and with a career built upon independent journalism, Tom Mshindi is well-versed on press freedom and the threats facing journalism today.
Whilst the situation for media freedom in Kenya is generally considered to be reasonable compared to many of its neighbours, the country’s press nevertheless faces considerable political and legal pressure, the challenge of increasing societal polarization – as seen in last year’s presidential elections – and the worldwide question of how to respond to the growing waves of “fake news”.
In this first part of IPI’s series of interviews with our new Executive Board members, we welcomed Tom Mshindi and discussed his aims, key challenges and prospects for the future of free, independent journalism in Kenya and the wider region.
IPI: With the tensions of the 2017 elections behind us, what do you see as the main challenges facing free media in Kenya?
Tom Mshindi: The media in Kenya is generally okay, but there are uncertainties that keep coming up. The most recent event, which is a bit alarming, is the passing of the Computer and Cybercrime Act: Although it seems to target trolls and bloggers who are using the web to attack individuals, it actually poses a serious risk to journalism with the penalty of criminal libel. The second thing we are very worried about is that increasingly we see the government using its economic muscle. Then, there is the proliferation of fake news, which is of course of great concern to us.
IPI: What is the main aim of the Nation Media Group?
Mshindi: The Nation Media Group is a publicly owned, publicly quartered media company. It has been a legacy media company, mainly dealing with newspapers, television and radio, but increasingly responding to the online consumer. Our policy is, as an independent media house, to produce verifiable, fair content which interests the public. We speak to the government but are not aligned to any party; we are aligned to the truth, we are aligned to fidelity to our consumers.
IPI: What is the main challenge facing the Nation Media Group at present?
Mshindi: The key issue is the existential question of remaining relevant. We are facing a significant challenge from the digital disruption, forcing us to rethink how we partake the news and relate to our readers. The issue of “why should I buy a newspaper when I am getting this news for free” – so investing in quality journalism is key.
IPI: What do you think the future holds for the press in Kenya and the wider region?
Mshindi: Well, there’s a lot of optimism! We from a business point of view will get around and reassert our dominance, and the fidelity of what only a strong mainstream media can do: verify facts and offer the truth. A lot of the time, this “bullet point, snappy news” just turns out to be fake.
We need to reclaim our high position vis-a-vis the rest of the people. We also need to reassert our relationship with advertisers because of the tools they have to measure return on investment, meaning we have a huge role in re-evaluating the value proposition. Other than that, the opposition today will be in the government tomorrow, so we need vigilance. It’s a question of being able to verify what you’re saying, for if you’re writing things or putting things on air that are not true, it will only create problems.
IPI: What motivates you to serve on the board of an organization like IPI?
Mshindi: I have a lot of admiration as a person for the work of IPI, an institution that gives solidarity to journalists, media houses and practitioners, knowing that there is a friend out who at a global level can mobilize and come in handy when you need it. Secondly, as a group, the Nation Media Group has been a part of IPI for a long time and has supported it at the (Executive) board level. When the vacancy of my former colleague came up, I was only too happy to take it up and am very happy to be able to be of service to IPI.
IPI: As a leading player in Central and East African independent journalism, what does belonging to the IPI network mean for you?
Mshindi: We are in there to assert our solidarity. From this side of the world there is a huge number of issues, ranging from training, media freedom, to fake news, to technology, and there is no better place to have that discourse than within a group like IPI that brings us together from the whole world to discuss and find solutions. I would like to put Africa at the centre of these discussions. It will be fantastic especially to see the discourse around Africa, which is becoming all the more relevant to our wider colleagues around the world.
Interview by Alexander White