[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f all the dramatic alignments and appointments in Kenyan media in the past one year or so, the elevation of veteran editor, Mutuma Mathiu, to the position of Editorial Director at the Nation Media Group (NMG) has been the most revolutionary.
Over the years, Mutuma has fashioned himself as an independent-minded journalist since his days as Managing Editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly, a publication owned by radical lawyer and later politician Gitobu Imanyara, which was a thorn in the flesh of the autocratic Moi regime. It’s now owned by senior counsel Ahmednasir Abdullahi.
Before landing his new job, Mutuma had served in various positions at NMG rising to the role of Executive Editor, daily editions.
Despite occupying what in the corporate world is referred to as the corner office, Mutuma has always remained true to his journalistic call. He is among the very few senior-most editors in the country who continue to talk to power without fear or favour and to fight for the rights of the ordinary citizens and journalists.
His rise to the top comes at a time Nation Media has been in sharp focus over whether it still remains true to its core values of independent journalism. While, like the rest of the media, NMG has been accused of bending over to serve vested political and commercial interests, it has in recent years been the main target of criticism for allegedly favouring one side of the political divide and suppressing independent journalism.
The claims saw several columnists quit in a huff last year after Saturday Nation Managing Editor Dennis Galava was sacked for writing an editorial critical of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Several other journalists had allegedly also been pushed out earlier.
There have also been allegations that despite NMG having an elaborate anti-corruption and unethical practices policy, some staffers and senior managers have been honouring it in breach. It is against this background that many see the appointment of Mutuma as a masterstroke that could redefine NMG journalism for the public good.
It is rumuored that some of these concerns are part of what led the NMG Board to push out Tom Mshindi, who was the Editor-in-Chief.
For starters, NMG prides itself as the largest independent media house in East and Central Africa with operations in print, broadcast and digital media, which attract and serve unparalleled audiences in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. And it has ambitions of expanding to the rest of Africa. Its slogan is ‘The Truth’. It also boasts being an agenda setter, with some of the best editorial policies in the region.
But now and then, it has faced censure for allegedly falling short of fully committing itself to these virtues and commitments. It is not something new. Since the 1960s, Nation has variously been accused of yielding to political and commercial interests to the detriment of its core values.
The 2010 Constitution expanded individual rights and entrenched pluralism both in politics and the media. As a result, the industry has been under sharp scrutiny in recent years. As the market leader and an NSE-listed enterprise, NMG has taken a big chunk of flak.
Long overdue move
As late as last year, the media house was accused of gravitating towards the official establishment, a move that dented its reputation especially after the opposition side NASA, at some point, called for the boycott of its products. It is rumuored that some of these concerns are part of what led the NMG Board to push out Tom Mshindi, who was the Editor-in-Chief, a position that has now been scrapped.
When announcing Mutuma’s appointment, Nation Media CEO Stephen Gitagama said he is “the most suitable hand in taking over the NMG editorial leadership based on his experience and expertise in the media.”
Many people both within and outside the industry welcomed the move with some terming it long overdue.
While accepting his appointment, Mutuma said: “As the Nation, we will continue our long tradition of quality journalism, standing for the truth and for the rights of ordinary Kenyans. We will pay particular attention to integrity and we will consistently hold each other to account. The Nation’s plan is to do journalism that is relevant and meaningful in the digital age”.
He followed it with a similar commitment in last Friday’s column. This did not go unnoticed.
Media Council of Kenya CEO David Omwoyo tweeted:
I have read @mutuma_mathiu editorial in today’s @dailynation. I am touched by its sincerity and mostly the undertaking to continue improving journalism Standards in a challenging environment. Congrats big boy and Godspeed @MediaObserverKE @MediaCouncilK
— David Omwoyo (@DavidOmwoyo) January 4, 2019
He repeated the same when he reorganised the NMG editorial structure last week.
But will Mutuma sustain the fire in his belly to ensure this happens? This in itself makes him the editor to watch in Kenya’s media in 2019, given the triangle of interests (journalism, profit and ethics) in media houses.
Some of those who welcomed his appointment expressed hope that he would not abandon his weekly Friday column, which has become quite popular because of the frank manner he talks issues.
In his new role, with all eyes looking at him, it will not be an easy task. Hopefully, once he settles in he will retain considerable focus to provide frank, no-holds-barred commentaries on topical issues affecting the country.
But again, we might be expecting too much of the man especially coming at a time when the country’s succession politics have adopted their usual fluid, intriguing nature. Or are we?
Going by this week’s column, we could be right or wrong. Mutuma, in his attempt to dissect what is happening in Jubilee between Team Kieleweke and Team Tanga Tanga, opted to take a “satirical” approach complete with a rider that no one should place liability on him for anything he wrote.
“Allow me to speculate. This is my own personal theory — for your entertainment, not information. Don’t sue me if it’s wrong (it most likely is),” he wrote.
Whether it was his safe way of starting off in his new role at Editorial Director by testing the waters remains to be seen.