JK SHOULD HOLD PRESS CONFERENCES INSTEAD OF TALKING TO ELDERS
By Evarist Kagaruki
It is generally agreed that where the government of the day has evolved a culture of interacting with the media, its relationship with the people is normally healthy. This is because in such situation, there is destined to be transparency in the management of public affairs that would lead to the media obtaining correct, adequate and prompt information (from government sources) and transmitting it to the public; and this would make the people trust their government.
President Jakaya Kikwete who, since the time he was minister, has had a very cordial relationship with members of the Fourth Estate has not been engaging the media the way may had expected him to. For instance, he hardly calls press conferences to explain some of the crucial national and international issues and give journalists a good chance to ask critical questions, express their view points and, in the process, gather a lot of information worth communicating to the public.
If my memory serves me right, the last and only time the president called a news conference was in early October 2006, whereby he met heads of media houses or their representatives. He announced he would meet the media after every three months, a promise he has not kept!
This has been a great disappointment because regular presidential news conferences are beneficial in several ways: First, they offer journalists an opportunity to ask probing questions on a variety of issues of public interest. A majority of the scribes live among ordinary citizens and therefore know what the public say about their leadership. So, their questions and comments would, invariably, reflect the general public mood and help the president to see the other side of government.
Secondly, press conferences are good forums for the Head of State to elucidate government policies, plans and strategies for tackling the myriad challenges facing the country and so forth; indeed, they are a vehicle for conveying government’s message to the people, and vice versa. And, lastly, the practice enriches the culture of transparency and accountability in public office and enhances public confidence in the government.
Surprisingly, President Kikwete has not fully utilized the vital services of the State House Directorate of Communications to connect with the people. Ordinarily, if the president can’t personally engage the media, his director of communications should be handling presidential press briefings routinely.
Regrettably, the tradition of such press briefings that evolved during the second phase administration ended with the demise of Mr. Nkurlu who was President Benjamin Mkapa’s Press Secretary. President Mkapa, whose first years in office saw him personally interacting with the media before he sort of got bored with what he then regarded as “mediocre press”, devised another way of communicating with the people via the electronic media.
He began end-of-the-month Radio/TV addresses to the nation, in which he articulated government policies (and, of course, his personal perspective) on various local and international issues. This system was continued by his predecessor, President Kikwete who improvised it a bit by (sometimes) holding meetings with various kinds of groups of people of his choice in the society, like regional elders, for example, and his speeches were aired by radio and televised. His last one was on March 12, when he addressed the nation through Dar es Salaam elders, on which occasion he dwelt on the issue of the doctors’ strike.
While it is okay for the president to talk to the nation via radio and television or by way of meetings with elders or any other social group, critics contend that this kind of one-way communication with the people does not help him to gauge the people’s feelings about his government. Press conferences are, they argue, what would serve that purpose because they are about two-way communication.
It has also been argued that if President Kikwete can spare part of his precious time to meet elders (whom he addresses without entertaining questions), how could he possibly fail to have the convenience of meeting journalists with whom he certainly would have beneficial dialogue?
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