By PETER WANBALI

To argue, like Mr Justice Richard Kuloba does, that the media deserve the close to Sh50 million penalties the High Court has slapped on them in past month is to analyse the operations of the local media through extremely narrow lens.

The suggestion that the mainstream media have been deliberately and consistently irresponsible and impervious to caution misrepresents facts.

First, there is no record of irresponsible reporting by the media to sustain the likelihood that the judges are fed up and must now impose crippling libel awards.

Secondly, the purpose of penalties fails when the effect is not to restore the reputation of a person harmed but to compensate them monetarily and hobble the operations of the perceived offender. We have here an excellent example of a mallet being brought out to drive in a pin.

For the irresponsibility argument to hold up, a review of the reportage must uncover repeated and wanton abuse of the trust the public places on the media and a blatant inability to exercise sound news judgement. That does not emerge to be the case.

The local media houses have, in fact, been extremely restrained in their reporting, often choosing not to publish if the information at hand is not fully verifiable. Time and again, we have seen annoyingly coy reports that describe well-known crooks and thieves as ''well-connected'', ''tycoon businessmen'', ''top-flight lawyers'' and other euphemisms that seek to avoid falling into the pits in which the media now find themselves. The editors have, correctly, chosen not to publish stories they could not prove even if they knew the stories to be true.

The judges' actions also fail the test of reasonableness. The defamation charge is an extremely dicey issue to grapple with, dealing as it does with the intangible variables of esteem and public perception.

The judges know better than most lesser mortals how difficult it is to measure the extent to which a report can be said to have ''lowered one in the estimation of right-thinking people'' or to have exposed one to ''hatred, contempt or ridicule'' or even to have made one be ''shunned or avoided''.

Often, very little of this sort ever happens. Life for those alleging injury goes on very much as before, with some actually enjoying the notoriety the reports often engender as they relish the prospect of the money they may gain from court action.

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