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Saturday, August 8, 2020

The fall of Kenyatta Family’s media house

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In May 2020, reports emerged that MediaMax was planning to shut down its vernacular television station known as Kameme Tv. Shortly after, MediaMax began to partially shut down its mainstream television station K24. As the media industry in Kenya came to terms with the two viral decisions, it emerged that the media house had entered into an agreement with the Moi Family’s Standard Media Group. The agreement would allow K24 to stream news from KTN News.

This lifted the lid on the market troubles that the media house owned by the Kenyatta Family has been facing. Since it was established in 2007, K24 has failed to gain significant traction in the highly competitive local media industry.

And whilst the media industry in Kenya has been taking the heat due to a bad economy and failure by the government to pay billions in pending advertisement bills, MediaMax has emerged as the worst hit.

Today, MediaMax is synonymous with the most severe salary cuts and job sackings in the East African media industry. For example, in 2019, MediaMax fired up to 160 employees in what was ranked as one the bloodiest layoffs in Kenya’s recent corporate history, and the biggest in media, rivaling Standard Media Group’s September 2017 sacking of just over 100 employees.

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Back then, as is happening now, the worst hit sections of the media house were Kameme Tv and K24. Those who were fired at K24 included managing editor Fred Njiiri, Frankline Wambugu, the managing editor for Kiswahili and chief anchor; English Managing Editor Boniface Mutakha, and Deputy Managing Editor Ali Mtenzi. Others shown the door included business editor Tony Timase and Sports Editor Torome Tirike. At Kameme TV, MediaMax scrapped the news gathering function, leaving tens of journalists and other support workers without jobs.

This was not the first time that the media house was embarking on mass firing. It had previously brought on board top journalists only to end up firing them a few months down the line. These journalists included former KTN Kiswahili presenter Anne Ngugi, who was sacked while pregnant. Others included Janet Chapia, Dancun Khaemba, Chris Thairu, Anders Ihachi and Geoffrey Wachira – who left Citizen but were to be fired two years later.

This year, the media house has continued with its infamous reputation of firing workers. Prior to the disclosure that it was entering into a merger with KTN News, MediaMax issued a notice informing all employees that they would be subjected to a fifty per cent pay cut. This was the highest pay cut to be meted out by a media house in Kenya.

“We have come up with several measures to ensure that we try to sustain and ensure that the business at this stage survives and sustains itself,” Mediamax acting Chief Executive Officer Ken Ngaruiya told employees in a circular dated April 17. “Amongst the proposed measures that will directly apply to employees will be a reduction of between 20 per cent and 50 per cent on Gross Monthly Pay based on job levels effective April 2020.”

The media house attributed the heavy pay cuts to the effects of the coronavirus scourge. “Our clients have been adversely affected and within a short span of time have had to make difficult decisions regarding their employees and their businesses including cancellation of their communication and advertising plans,” Mr. Ngaruiya said.

These pay cuts culminated in one of the media house’s top presenters Betty Kyalo leaving. A few weeks later, an action plan by the MediaMax management dated May 28 showed how Mediamax was planning to strip K24 of key assets and employees. This restructuring was set to take place over the month of June. “Mediamax has already cancelled leases for Kisumu and Eldoret bureaus as well as the first-floor commercial area at its DSM head office effective June 1. It has also cancelled utilities for these offices, including security and internet services. Employees have been left confused, with talk that some have been asked not to report to work from June 2,” a report that appeared in a local media news outlet said.

The report further claimed that under the new arrangement, fleet will be linked to products, subscription to Holiday Cars has been cut while Little Cab usage and approval will be restructured.

“Studio services will also be big casualties, with termination notices to be issued on June 2 for various services including, among others, studio make-up provided by Make-up Lounge, studio hair styling offered by Articles & Arts and studio dressing by Glams by Cess. In addition, K24 will be terminating all programmes except Punchline hosted Ann Kiguta and K24 in the Morning,” the report said.

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As the restructuring progresses, employees at the media house have been left grasping on straws as their jobs hang in the balance. “Mediamax Network Limited regrets to advise; that owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has adverse effects on its revenue streams, it shall reorganize its staff structure and abolish some positions as part of its cost optimization measures in the wake of its new business realities,” one of the statements from the company’s management announced on May 21. “In line with the current HR policies, Mediamax Network Limited shall give the employees declared redundant one month’s notice. Alternatively, Mediamax may pay them one month’s salary in lieu of notice and pay a severance pay at the rate of 15 days’ pay for each year of severance.”

The downfall of MediaMax has shocked many, given that the media house is owned by the first family, which is renowned for the way it  protects its business interests. In fact, in April this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly made an impromptu visit to DSM Place, the Mediamax Headquarters, to try and salvage the sinking ship. Reports said that he attended a board meeting where Mr. Ngaruiya was asked to justify the 50 per cent pay cut while other media houses were instituting 20 – 30 per cent pay cuts.

But this could not save the situation, giving the impression that things at the media house were so bad that even the president had no option but to let the management proceed with its measures. The MediaMax currently owns Kameme FM, Kameme Tv, K24, People Daily, and Milele FM. Deputy President William Ruto has also been said to own shares at MediaMax.

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