Tonight the curtains will fall on this year’s edition of African Cup of Nations (Afcon), the showcase of the best of football that Africa offers. East Africa showed up in good numbers, but not force.
The region was represented by Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. That was remarkable. But even more remarkable is how they were all bundled out one after the other nearly all of them at the group stage.
But this commentary is not about football; it is about the media. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation made a strong statement before the games started that they would broadcast the matches live from Cairo.
And they did. The forces that came together to ensure that Kenya’s football lovers were not denied a chance to participate in the extravaganza did well.
That Kenya, indeed, East Africa is a football crazy region is no secret. One would see crowds gathered around a television screen once there is a football match playing out be it in the national league, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga or the Italian Serie A.
Unfortunately for these football lovers, the broadcasting of football in the region is a private commercial affair that has locked out the hoi polloi. Indeed, at the core of it is the question of the right of access to content by the majority of the people.
The conversation around media policy over the years has evolved with those advocating the upper hand of the market in both the content and cultural values and as vehicles of transmission having the debate their way most of the time.
Some voices have been raised arguing for a reduced role for the government in every sector contending that market forces are capable of creating equilibrium of access in both the transmission of content and content itself.
Increasingly of course, those advocating the dominance of market forces are beginning to see their argument losing out, certainly in academia, with stronger voices, arguing that access to content is a right and can not be guaranteed if its delivery is privatised.
It is this argument that those in Kenya who argue that KBC is an out- dated relic that should be allowed to compete with others or die, fail to grasp. At the core of the market forces argument is always the self serving profit concern. This, too often triumphs over public interest.
How we define public interest, for now, is neither here nor there, but if there is a huge demand for the content, then it is certainly of public interest.
It is in the interest of the public to cover the far lying outback of this country even if it does not make economic sense. It is in the same vein that it is in the public interest to show the extravaganza from Cairo even if it does not make economic sense.
A democratically elected regime exists to serve citizens and must be sensitive to their need. Watching the football match is one such need. It has a therapeutic, information, surveillance and other effects on the people. The government thus has a duty to facilitate it.
While broadcasting of Afcon was a success, the question then must move to concerns over the most effective way to democratise not just the content and culture of the media but the delivery regime to ensure accessibility by the public. After all this is the legal regime that this country now operates under.
But it cannot stop there, to the extent that access to media is a public right going way back to the UN Declaration of the 1940s, it further means that any act by the government, or any other agency that then skews this media environment is a danger to the public. Support by the government or its agencies can not stop with the support of KBC during the Afcon, but must go further. — The writer is the Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University.