Does Kenyan Media Reporting Fuel Violence In Troubled Times?
The Kenyan media is vibrant, well developed and has a long tradition of being critical and incisive in its reporting. Newspapers played a key role in the struggle for multiparty politics, highlighting and exposing corruption scandals and calling for the opening up of political and economic space in the country. From 1969 to 1991, elections in Kenya were held on a single party basis. KANU’s firm grip on Kenyan politics assured the party’s consecutive wins.
The 2002 General Election ended Daniel Moi’s 24 year old reign at State House. Mwai Kibaki, the first Vice President under Moi in 1978, took over with a landslide victory of 62.21% of the overall results.
Prof. Adebayo Adedeji’s (former UN Under-Secretary General & Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa) Commonwealth Observer Group who were present during the polls concluded that the electoral process was credible.
Kenya was burning five year later. Raila Odinga, after rallying behind Kibaki under the “Kibaki Tosha” campaign in 2002, was the top man’s main challenger in 2007. The Kenyan media was caught up in the mayhem. Mwai KIbaki was hurriedly declared President having garnered 46% of the vote.
Raila’s supporters went on rampage. All hell broke loose in the blink of an eye.
The ensuing days saw Kenya plunge into its most horrifying crisis in post- independence history. It was like a hurricane hit whose signs everyone ignored. Approximately 1,300 were lost. 600,000 displaced. Numbers which could highly be an understatement. Samuel Kivuitu’s team, then in charge of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, were in hot soup. Things fell apart fast as the two political bigwigs stalled the country in an election dispute.
This was in addition to the fact that the Kenyan media suffered a form of blackout right after the final results were announced, and the days after it. They reported what was seemingly a censured version of the true picture on the ground: that hundreds of Kenyans were dying, with many losing their homes in the ensuing chaos.
We got a new constitution three years after the chaos, and three later, Uhuru Kenyatta won the top seat. The exercise was deemed relatively peaceful despite a lot of self-censorship cited by a few non-governmental organisations. They believed that the media’s watchdog role in scrutinising the electoral process, especially vote tallying and results dissemination was compromised perhaps out of the fear of a repeat of 2007. But were Kenyans themselves in peace?
The new Constitution provides and guarantees in Articles 33, 34 and 35, freedom of expression and of the press. The articles provide for the freedom to seek, receive or impart information and ideas and independence of the media and the right to access information. The State is prohibited from interference with editorial decisions in both state as well as private media. The state media is required to be impartial and present a diversity of views. Kenya has over 100 radio stations, 20 TV channels and over two dozen newspapers.
Radio is the main source of news and information. There is also a growing access to and use of the internet, with official statistics putting the figure at 20 to 28 per cent penetration. Mobile phones were also an important tool for relaying election news and information in 2013, with over 30 million Kenyans owning a mobile phone.
The Kenyan media planned coverage of the election process for the 2013 polls conscious of the bitter criticism of their performance during the 2007 elections. In 2007, some media houses, notably the vernacular radio stations stirred tensions by taking sides and providing politicians with avenues to disseminate hate speech. For example, one of the four ICC inductees was a DJ with a vernacular radio station. As a result, both the Waki and Kriegler reports into the post-election violence of 2007/2008 identified hate speech as a key issue and recommended improvements in media regulation.
In this regard, the 2008 Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act was passed to address these issues. Also, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) was established in 2008 to deal with cases of hate speech. The NCIC Act stipulates that a person convicted of hate speech shall receive a maximum fine of Ksh 1 million (USD$11,760), three years in jail or both. There were a number of reports in the lead up to the 2013 elections, of cases that were brought to the NCIC, but it was not clear what transpired.
In preparation for the coverage of the 2013 elections, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) together with media houses, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Kenya Union of Journalists, other media stakeholders and the government, developed binding media guidelines for reporting elections in April 2012. The objective was to promote accurate, comprehensive, impartial, fair and responsible coverage of the elections and to ensure that journalists are sensitive to the risk of conflict.
The Commonwealth Observer Group was generally satisfied with the way the domestic media covered the 2013 elections and the role it played in informing the voters about the issues in the election and the contribution media made to the quality of the process. Media is to be commended for calling for patience and calm during the whole election process, particularly during the counting, tallying and announcement of results.
Media houses had issued guidelines before the elections discouraging the use of sensationalist reporting. This may have been a response to a 2008 Commission of Inquiry report that implicated the media in engaging in hate speech during the 2007 election period and its aftermath.
The unwillingness to report or investigate disturbing events had the impact of “dumbing down” election-related coverage to such a degree that, when the IEBC chairman announced a technical glitch in the newly-acquired biometric voter register system that was hastily purchased to make the tallying process more efficient and transparent, few media houses thought of investigating the cause of the malfunction, or its implications on the election results.
The Kenyan media’s “professional surrender” and self-restraint, wrote British journalist Michela Wrong in a New York Times blog devoted to the Kenyan elections, “reveals a society terrified by its own capacity for violence.”
The Kenyan media had decided not to “disturb the peace” even if it meant under-reporting electoral malpractices. This “peace messaging” was also premised on the notion that a politically unstable Kenya was not good for local businesses and foreign investors, and that remaining peaceful or non-violent was good for the economy. Kenyans paid a heavy economic price after the 2007 elections when the economy nearly ground to a halt for nearly two months, which impacted not just local businesses, but exports to neighbouring countries.
All in all, it seems that Kenyan media has a very critical role, as the Fourth estate, to guide and guard the interests of the people it reports for. It may seem casual, or even trivial, when a person asks whether the media has a hand in how the elections are reported; and how they impact the populace before, during and after the elections.
They are more than influential. They are powerful. But moving forward, how can Kenyans be empowered to also question the media to lay conscious pressure on it to be more apt, non-biased and accurate in relaying information?