Aga Khan Timeline - Speech - March 1997

SPEECH BY HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN AT THE INAUGURATION OF THE NATION PRESS BUILDING, NAIROBI.

Nairobi, Kenya
Wednesday, March 12, 1997


Your Excellency The President,
Your Excellency the Vice President,
Honorable Minister for Information,
Honorable Ministers,
Your Excellencies,
Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The opening of an important new building is always a cause of celebration - and it is wonderful to know that so many people are celebrating this occasion with us.

You may have heard about the man who was so excited when his friend opened a new building in his town that he sent a huge bouquet of flowers to celebrate that occasion. The only problem came when the bouquet arrived at the ceremony from the florist, and the card that was attached to the flowers read: "Rest in Peace."

Well, the man who sent the flowers was pretty upset by this error - and he immediately called the florist to complain. But the florist calmed him down by saying, "Don't worry. Just think of it this way. Somewhere in this town some poor soul is being buried today under a sign that says: "May you thrive in your new location."

Now, I don't know whether any cards got switched today at the floral shops of Nairobi. But I do want to make clear my wish for this new building. This will not be a place, I am sure, where anyone will ever want to "rest in peace." And my sincere wish for the Nation Group is that you will indeed, "thrive in your new location."

It always seems to me that the point of any ceremony in this sometimes frantic age, is to take time out from our daily routines - to rise above our normal preoccupations. Ceremonies give us a rare chance to look backward and forward in time - back on the path we have already traveled and forward down the road to the future.

For the Nation Group, the path from the past is now nearly 40 years old. It began at the time when colonial rule was ending in East Africa. And it began with our conviction that political independence here would never be complete unless it was accompanied by journalistic independence. At that time, East African journalism largely meant colonial journalism. It was to change that picture that we started the Nation Group.

Someone has said that for any company to be effective, it must do three things. It must "yearn". It must "learn" and then finally it can "earn". But the yearning and the learning must come first. We began with the yearning. And what we yearned for, was something profoundly different from what Kenya had known before.

We wanted to create a different kind of newspaper company in this country. We wanted a newspaper company that would truly speak for the people of Kenya. One that would report and reflect on matters of direct concern to a majority of Kenyans. One that would earn the public's confidence and deserve the public's trust.

This meant, from the very start that our newspapers had to be independent - first - of colonial habits and outlooks, and independent - secondly - to operate freely without any external including governmental controls or constraints. This did not mean that our newspapers were to be adversaries of any government. But it did mean that they were to be separate from all governments, with a corporate duty to act as "the people's observer".

The Constitution of this country recognises what the history of humankind also proves - it takes a variety of independent institutions to create a thriving society. Each has its own role to play. And each must respect the role of the others. The health of any one institution does not come at the expense of another institution. In fact, it's just the reverse.

The good health of each institution depends on the good health of all these institutions, a healthy press makes for a healthy government and a healthy government makes for a healthy press. Together, they make a healthy society.

In Kenya and around the world, the role of a free and independent press is not to check the government, not to cheer for the government, not even to chastise the government. That is for the public to do. Those are the people's prerogatives.

The role of an independent press is to give the public the information which it needs to carry out its responsibilities. And this special task - the role of observing and informing - is a role that not even the most enlightened government can ever play for itself.

That's why healthy societies need an independent press. And this is what everyone at the Nation Group has always "yearned" for.

Along the way, of course, the Group's yearning was accompanied by a great deal of learning. And one of the quickly discovered principles was that the newspaper also had to be a servant of the larger community. Not the servant of any one institution in that community. Nor the servant of any business interest. Not the servant of any religious or social or educational interest. Not the servant of government. But the servant of the community as a whole.

In the long run, every newspaper must be held accountable for the way it does its work. But accountable to whom? Not to any single authority, official or unofficial. But accountable to the organic, pluralistic community that stretches out over space and time.

We talk a lot about the rights of the press as an independent social critic, and that is very important. But it is also important to talk about the obligations of the press as a constructive social leader.

In my view, this sense of social obligation means avoiding that obsessive individualism which is so rampant in our world. It means rejecting the celebration of success for its own sake, regardless of its social impact. It means resisting the siren song of sensationalism and sectarianism - as ways to build short term leadership and short term profits. It means writing and editing newspapers with a concern for social cohesion - and with a sense of moral standards. It is always tempting to focus on the divisive, the dramatic, the diverting - that's a quick and easy way to popular success.

Catering to public voyeuristic curiosities, with little concern for the value of personal privacy, has become a way of life for some journalists around the world. The question as I see it is simply this - will our journalists write about what is truly significant for our societies? Or will they downgrade or trivialize news into entertainment as they woo the largest possible audience with the most easily digestible headline? This is a major question everywhere, but it has particular significance for the developing world - where the need to focus on central, serious issues is so especially compelling.

It may surprise you to hear a Principal Shareholder describing temptations which sometimes lure the press from the highest, noblest paths. But in my experience, many of the most thoughtful critics of the press are people who are part of the press - and who want their newspapers to live up to their fullest potential.

I would cite, for example, Mr. Conrad Black, the Canadian publisher who owns a vast array of successful newspapers on virtually every continent. Mr. Black normally defends the practice of journalism in our day - and argues that it is improving. But he is also deeply troubled by some journalistic tendencies. He deplores, for example - and I quote his words - the practice of ,"compulsively, almost rhythmically, building up and tearing down reputations." And he worries about a tendency (especially among younger journalists) to, "substitute what they call commitment for insight."

Let me insist again, however, on one important point. When newspaper people acknowledge the shortcomings of the press, this does NOT mean that they care any less about the freedom of the press. In fact the reason press leaders talk so much about press responsibility is that they care so deeply about press freedom. Or to put it another way, they strive to preserve press liberty by ensuring that it does not turn into press license.

This central concern is one that Conrad Black, among others, sees as the particular responsibility of the newspaper proprietor or publisher. Black elaborates on the publisher's role as follows: "To maintain standards of fair reporting and consistency of opinion, to support the journalists when they are unfairly attacked, to prevent any ╝faction from hijacking the newspaper, to order ╝ retractions when they are required and deserved, and to help give the newspaper a personality." And he concludes: "Non interventionist newspaper proprietors encourage irresponsible journalism by their abdication."

I have never been a "non-interventionist publisher." And I do not propose to become one. A Principal Shareholder's role, it seems to me, is to be sure that the company's key positions are in the best possible hands, that the ideals and standards of the newspaper are clearly and thoughtfully articulated, and that sufficient resources are available so that a truly professional staff can be properly hired, properly trained, properly equipped, and properly supported. If publishers can achieve those goals, then they will surely have good reason to be proud of their publications.

It has been wisely said down through the years that a great newspaper is "a nation talking to itself." I can't think of a better description of the ideal which has for so long inspired the Nation publications.

>From the start, this ideal meant recognising the fragile nature of a relatively new country. It meant understanding that new attitudes must be introduced in ways that do not divide and frighten. It meant welcoming pluralistic influences while rejecting destabilising ones. And those same truths still hold today.

And through the years, our confidence in the wisdom of this larger community has been rewarded, because the Kenyan public, whenever it has had the chance, has always demanded better forms of journalism. The early readers of the Nation publications - first Taifa and then the Nation itself - wanted something that went well beyond what the colonial press had given them. And the Nation Group have been working ever since, to meet their expectations.

In the last few years, the larger community has encouraged the Group to take another important step. The theme of regional integration has become a central concern for the peoples of East Africa. Nation's response to that concern was to launch yet another publication, one that could help readers explore both the present realities and the future possibilities of cross-border cooperation. And that is how the EastAfrican got its start in 1994. Finally let me mention one other central lesson learnt through the years, a lesson which has led directly to the doors of the Nation Centre and this new printing facility. What I am talking about is an enthusiasm for new technology. >From the start, new technology has been a constant theme in Nation corporate life. In the earliest days, the Nation became the first newspaper anywhere outside North America then to embrace the revolutionary web-offset printing technique. Nation was among the first newspapers outside the U.S. to adopt computerized typesetting. More recently, the company has moved into the new multi-media world so that its publications are now globally available "on-line". This means that the Nation and the EastAfrican are actually available, via the Internet, to readers in New York and Washington for instance, even before they are purchased by readers in the streets of Nairobi. The remarkable plant we dedicate today - probably the most modern press facility in all of Africa - is a direct outgrowth of this same tradition. This spirit of innovation will continue. There will be more new facilities, more precedent-shattering projects, more ground breaking, more dedications, as the Nation Group pursues its destiny and serves its constituents. The technology of the Internet and the World-Wide Web to mention one example - is exploding so quickly that no communications company can possibly ignore it. Experts tell us that the ratio of power to cost in modern computers is doubling every 18 months. And bandwidth - the carrying capacity of fiber optic cables and wireless channels is multiplying even faster. Some say that the developing world in general and Africa in particular, may be left behind by this revolution in communications technology. But I would argue just the reverse. It seems to me that societies which have invested less in old technologies have the potential to propel themselves even more quickly into new technologies, provided they have the commitment and resources to do so. What this new plant symbolizes, above everything else, is here in Africa we have made that commitment. Today companies like the Nation, in Africa, and around the world, increasingly think of themselves not as mere newspaper companies or magazine companies or television companies or radio companies. Instead they think of themselves more and more, as communications companies - in the broadest sense of the word. It is their business to get reliable information to people and to get it to them as quickly and efficiently as possible - whether that information comes to them as ink on paper, or as television pictures, or as radio voices, or as data on a computer screen. Nation believes the public and this country, will best be served by companies, such as this one, who have the resources and the experience to make the best possible use of all these various pipelines. It is high time Africans conveyed to the world what they think of themselves, even if it is in several voices and cannot always be flattering, instead of being told unidirectionally what others think of them.

As this company - on this solemn ceremonial occasion - looks back along the path that has brought us here, and forward along the path to the future - we see dramatic evidence of the accelerating pace of change and the challenges and opportunities it presents for us. We must be alert, flexible and courageous enough to find new answers for new times, trying all the time to improve the way the company serves the Kenya nation. But the company's horizons are now the world, and no longer just Kenya, or even Africa.

As the Nation Group explores the new possibilities of global communication, it can take enormous encouragement from the record which has already been written. Its inspiring past is one of its great resources as it grasps its exciting future.

The Nation story is a proud story. My grateful thoughts today are with all those down through the years, who have helped to write that story - and who have brought us so successfully to this special time and to this stirring occasion.


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