Thought and Ideas
The Kenyan media and self-censorship in the elections
Posted Sunday, March 17 2013 at 02:00
In the last few weeks, Western journalists — myself included — have become pariahs, lambasted by Kenya’s twitterati and Facebook users for our coverage and threatened by the government with deportation
Over the years I’ve come to view the Kenyan media with a mixture of respect and affection. In the 1990s, I watched in awe as Kenyan photographers dodged Daniel arap Moi’s club-wielding riot police. When their colleagues in the newsroom exposed financial scandals, ranging from Goldenberg to Anglo Leasing, I pasted their articles into my files. Like the press pack anywhere, Kenyan journalists liked their beer and could wolf down a buffet in a heartbeat, and the odd brown envelope definitely changed hands. But they were brave. “The best press in Africa,” I told anyone who cared to listen.
So Kenya’s recent election has been a baffling, frustrating time.
In the last few weeks, Western journalists — myself included — have become pariahs, lambasted by Kenya’s twitterati and Facebook users for our coverage and threatened by the government with deportation.
The fury seems exaggerated, given the relative rarity of offending articles. Western reports have attracted undue interest, I’m convinced, because domestic coverage, while increasingly slick, has been so lifeless. It sometimes feels as though a zombie army has taken up position where Kenya’s feisty media used to be, with local reporters going glaze-eyed through the motions.
Kenyan media of ‘yesterday and today’
This malaise was most obvious last week during briefings by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission at the tallying center in Bomas, just outside Nairobi, when what had been billed as a high-tech, tamper-proof election began to unravel spectacularly. The Kenyan media of old would have gone for the jugular. But when the commission chairman, Issack Hassan, after describing yet another puzzling technical glitch or mysterious delay, asked, “Any questions?” the response was stunned silence.
It was the same when independent election monitors announced their findings. Given just how many anomalies were surfacing, the upbeat assessments of observers from the African Union, the European Union and the Commonwealth seemed inexcusably complacent. Yet once again, Kenyan journalists left most of the questions to their Western counterparts.
Lethargy should not be mistaken for laziness. Yes, rumors are swirling about payoffs and conflicts of interest. But this professional surrender, ironically, appears to stem from the very best of intentions.
During the violence that followed the 2007 election, when militias burned families out of their houses and executed members of rival ethnic communities, Kenya’s media played a not-entirely-innocent role. Hate speech spread by vernacular radio stations and via SMS egged on the men with machetes, just as they once had in Rwanda. One of the three indictees facing trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague is Joshua arap Sang, who ran the Kalenjin-language radio station Kass FM.
Chastened by that experience, media executives reached a gentlemen’s agreement to avoid anything that might whip up ethnic tensions ahead of this year’s election. There would be no live coverage of announcements or press conferences by political parties.
“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”
Price of self-censorship
But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.
Hours after the CORD alliance of the opposition leader Raila Odinga announced that it wanted the tallying of ballots stopped and an audit conducted, Kenyan radio D.J.’s were still cheerfully assuring listeners that everything was on track. That may have prevented passions in Odinga’s Luo community from exploding, but it was a massive distortion of the truth.
The local media swiftly fell into the habit of brushing off CORD’s declarations. Television broadcasts of Odinga’s announcement that he would challenge the outcome of the election before the Supreme Court switched to Uhuru’s acceptance speech before the Q&A with Odinga had even began. By this Wednesday, Kenya’s largest newspaper devoted more space to the selection of a new pope than to the lawsuits being prepared by CORD and civil society groups.
The Kenyan media’s self-restraint reveals a society terrified by its own capacity for violence. “What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge?” asked the Kenyan cartoonist Patrick Gathara in a superb blog post, citing a national “peace lobotomy.” He went on: “What peace lives in the perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?”
Shortly before handing Uhuru his winner’s certificate, the chairman of the election commission congratulated the Kenyan media on their “exemplary behavior.” As he did, the screen above his head was showing figures that did not add up.