By Peter G. Mwesige
It is reported that business is getting back to normal in Kenya after last week’s election, which incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta officially won.
I am not sure business will get back to normal for most of the mainstream media in Kenya. It appears that in their attempt to foster peace and deny voice and space to any forces that could easily trigger violence, the Kenyan media have once again gone overboard.
I have not followed the coverage as closely as I did when I had just arrived in Kenya in December 2007 (for what turned out to be a two-year stint at the headquarters of Nation Media Group, East Africa’s biggest media conglomeration), but it appears this year’s coverage pretty much mirrors what the mainstream media gave their audiences in the run-up to and after the 2013 elections.
The coverage has tended to give a lot of prominence to announcements by officialdom, especially the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), police and, after he was declared winner, President Kenyatta. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga and his chief agents have received coverage too, but the media appear to have gotten tired of their narrative quite early. (Of course, it hasn’t helped matters that Mr Odinga’s NASA has not, according to the media, produced the EVIDENCE to support his claims of electoral fraud).
Critical reporting that investigates or interrogates claims by officials, explains and offers context and perspective or connects the dots has been limited or muted.
So, on the night of the elections and the following two days, the media reported the official provisional results released by the IEBC without showing where (constituencies) these results were coming from. This can be misleading as new results from one candidate’s stronghold can easily change the numbers (In Kenya, as in Uganda last year, the difference between the two main contenders remained almost constant; this issue also required explanation and analysis but attracted little of both in the mainstream media).
As the days went on, there were reports that Kenya Police were using excessive force against protesters. But it’s unlikely that those who have relied on mainstream media for their news have a good sense of the extent of the violence and post-election killings by police and others.
In more recent days, the wrath of the establishment has been turned on civil society groups, the most prominent of which are the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and AFRICOG. I read in horror a mainstream newspaper story that reported on the purported deregistration of KHRC by the Kenya NGO Coordination Board. It did not mention the fact that the organisation had made several critical statements on the electoral process. Was it paying the price for its activism around the elections or was the timing just a coincidence? Those are legitimate questions that journalists MUST ask.
In another story on 16 August it was reported that an IEBC Commissioner, Dr Roselyne Akombe, had been taken off a Nairobi flight to New York on orders of State security although she was later allowed to board another plane. Why was she taken off the plane? Why is this an issue? A leading Kenyan newspaper said that “sources” had told its reporters that some “State operatives feared that Dr Akombe, who reportedly holds both Kenyan and US passports was fleeing from Kenya”. Why would she be fleeing? Has this got anything to do with the election results? We don’t know. The newspaper didn’t ask those questions.
Make no mistake; we are aware of the dangers of reckless reporting. How the media report on a claim of violence in a certain part of the country can easily incite more violence. How the media report on claims of electoral fraud can equally incite supporters of the ‘losing’ candidate.
But the solution is not to avoid these claims and the ugly facts. Good journalism would report accurately on what is going on. It would interrogate the claims and report the ugly facts in a manner that helps the reader or listener or viewer understand what is happening. It would provide the kind of context that would help hold back those who would otherwise quickly want to take to the streets to make trouble.
To steer clear of controversial claims by legitimate actors in the name of peace is a disservice to the people in the long run. Not only does it easily undermine the integrity and credibility of journalism, it also undercuts the strengthening of institutions of State such as the electoral authority.
Dr. Peter G. Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of African Centre for Media Excellence. He previously headed the department of journalism & communication at Makerere University, was executive editor of Monitor Publications Ltd, and Group Training Editor of the Nation Media Group.