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Unlike bad juice, you can’t just take ideas off the shelf
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 3 years 2 weeks

And now to that small “misunderstanding” between The EastAfrican and the state of Tanzania, which for a third week now has taken the paper off the streets of the nation Julius Nyerere founded.

Ordinarily it would be hard for an independent journalist to find any good in something like that. However, there is.

The EastAfrican’s toothache in Tanzania gives us a valuable insight into how Common Markets like the East African Community work in Africa.

You can sell beer, maize, cooking oil, cement, and sugar, issue common visas, and build joint railways in our common markets. However, it is rather trickier marketing ideas and arguments comfortably across borders all the time – especially in an old economy medium like a newspaper.

It is easier with TV, and even radio. Nation Media Group has enough bruises on its knuckles both at home and in the other EAC countries where it operates to prove this.

This is puzzling, because “gazeti,” as editors in Kenya like to call them, reach fewer people than TV and radio. Yet those inky pages are much more troublesome.

Methinks the problem with a serious “gazeti” like The EastAfrican is that it cannot, by its nature, offer comic relief or a silly distraction.

For example, even a serious TV station anywhere in East Africa, will have a tension breaker – half-naked men and women dancing during the music programme, a comedy show, a crooked pastor caught in bed with the wife of the head of his church choir, or even a football match. TV essentially is able to say at the end of the day that, “We are not too serious.”

Reading “gazeti,” on the other hand, is probably what wrestling a python must feel like. It is unrelenting, and demands that you take it seriously.

To make matters worse, in this day and age, newspapers tend – relative to FM radio, for example – to attract the few people that men and women of power would rather they didn’t. The grumpy, brooding fellows, who think too much and hold grudges longer. The type of people who fill in crossword puzzles.

Revolutions are made by those crossword-filling types, not the chaps who watch Mexican soaps or stay up all night watching Big Brother Africa housemates doing nothing more than sleeping.

Then, and one can only empathise with the Powers of the Republic of Tanzania here, stories, narratives, and ideas are a messy product. First, you can’t put a price on them.

A newspaper may cost half a dollar, but that is the cost of the paper and ink, not of the ideas it carries. Those can be worth anything from $1 to $10,000. Not even the journalists know.

Therefore, you can’t negotiate over them the way you would with batteries or maize flour at an EAC ministerial meeting. But the biggest problem is that you can’t recall an idea or a philosophical outlook. If a brand of juice is found to have been imported without inspection, you can take it off the shelf and bury the packets.

If someone becomes a convinced democrat from reading progressive ideas and stories, you cannot really ask them to embrace anti-democratic values the next day, can you?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com) Twitter: @cobbo3