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KENYA: Media’s Role in the Election Fallout

Analysis by Sisule F. Musungu*

GENEVA, Jan 24 2008 (IPS) - As Kenya’s tenth parliament met for the first time last week, the violence that rocked the country after the announcement of Mwai Kibaki as the presidential winner in the Dec. 2007 elections had largely died down. But the country is bracing for more violence and turmoil.

As Kenyans and the international community try to come to terms with what happened, it would be useful to systematically think about the role played by the key institutions of democracy. In Kenya, the media, together with a robust civil society, has been a key force for democratisation. But as things unravelled after the elections, one could not help but wonder whether the Kenyan media could have done better, whether media could have helped forestall the fallout.

The unravelling of the elections and the violence that followed the bungled announcement of Kibaki’s win over opposition leader Raila Odinga has put into serious question the basis of Kenya&#39s democracy and, in particular, the institutions of democracy in the country.

There is no doubt that the biggest culprit in the Kenyan chaos is the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) led by Samuel Kivuitu.

Furthermore, no one seriously thinks that the Kenyan High Court would objectively address the presidential election dispute. Not after Kibaki appointed new judges a few days prior to the elections and when the chief justice is said to have been waiting to swear in a particular candidate even before results had been announced.

The appointment of judges was a significant event that went largely unnoticed. The protests of the Law Society of Kenya and a few other groups could hardly be heard above the din of the election euphoria.

But, Kenyans have always known the weakness of the ECK and the courts, which is why looking at the conduct of the media becomes important in thinking about what went wrong.

In successive polls over the years, Kenyans have consistently ranked the media as the most trusted institution coming ahead of even the church. Public institutions such as the courts and parliament have never won the confidence of the country.

While there has been intense discussion about how the international media reported the post election violence, there has been little discussion about how the local media handled the whole situation.

The media could, and should have provided credible and useful information regarding the issues and numbers in the disputed constituencies.

The media also failed to appreciate the importance of the dispute, and reduced it to a two-man affair. The "it depends on Kibaki and Raila" approach did not, and will not help.

After what was widely believed to be a stolen election by Daniel Moi in 1992, there was a big push – and blood was shed – by Kenyans to establish mechanisms to guard against rigging and therefore to ensure the credibility of results. Everyone was clearly aware that evidence of rigging or lack of credibility would lead to violence in different forms – including ethnic based violence which had been seen around that time in the Rift Valley.

Apart from safeguards related to the composition of the electoral commission – which Kibaki ignored in appointing most of the current commissioners – 1997 reforms established a cornerstone safeguard; the rule to count votes and announce the results for local elections, Members of Parliament, and presidential candidates publicly at each polling station and in constituencies.

This rule was not just meant to guard against stuffing of boxes or disappearances of ballot boxes during transportation etc., as happened in 1992. This rule was meant to allow the media, observers, political parties and the general public to know local results without relying on centralised tallying. Results would be put into the public domain allowing observers and any interested parties, including the political parties to compile their own tallies independently.

It is because of this rule that European Union (EU) observers of the Dec. 2007 election were able to authoritatively talk about alteration of figures at some of the constituencies they observed.

Why did the Kenyan media fail to play the role of a watchdog and use the publicly announced results at the polling and constituency level to ensure that there was no fiddling or allegation of fiddling?

Hours before the ECK declared Kibaki the winner, it was clear that the mainstream media – with their extensive network – had possession of most, if not all, the publicly announced results and could therefore independently come up with the tally.

Both the Daily Nation on its website and the Kenya Television Network (KTN) did in fact display advanced figures on Dec. 30 before suddenly withdrawing the figures. The Daily Nation’s figures, for example, showed Odinga with over 4.5 million votes and Kibaki at just over 4.2 million.

Why did this happen? Did the media cave in to threats and intimidation from political players? Is it possible that the media did not have information to tell the country what exactly happened in the 48 plus constituencies that have been cited as problem areas?

Ten million, predominantly poor people, went to vote in December elections with the promise that "yote yawezakana" (all is possible). The media was in the forefront telling these people that it was only their vote that counted. After the announced results – for good reason – people thought that their vote didn’t count, and the media was not telling them why. The country was obviously heading for trouble.

The violence – including state sponsored violence – that followed the announcement of the results was seriously misdirected, uncalled for and in most cases criminal. But, it was also a complex phenomenon beyond simple Kikuyu against Luos or vice versa.

While the local media – at least the mainstream media – has avoided the Kikuyu-Luo dichotomy, the media promoted another dangerous dichotomy. They reduced the problem to simply a Raila-Kibaki game, while failing to tackle seriously the extra-judicial killings by police.

By taking this position the media is letting everyone else off the hook. The people at the ECK, the Police Commissioner and the intelligence services, the people running State House, and the people around Odinga should all be held accountable for their actions.

Thus far the returning officers who had gone missing and the police who were sent to look for them have not been questioned and no criminal or other serious investigations are being undertaken. It is critical that the media focuses on responsibility of players beyond two individuals – including responsibility of the media itself.

Over-simplification leads to the usual conclusion that people in Kenya only vote for their tribe etc. To suggest that people voted for Kibaki or Odinga simply because they are Kibaki or Odinga is an insult.

To many of the people who went to vote, each candidate represented a particular vision and particular direction for the country. Tribal affiliations to these two or people around them obviously played a role in determining the level of trust voters placed in each of them, but if we kid ourselves that this is just about that and nothing fundamental, we might be missing the point and the solutions we provide will be misdirected.

Violence and chaos undermine democracy in many ways: when the state seeks to use violence and chaos to restrict media freedom – as in the case of the ban on live broadcasts; when the state seeks to use violence and chaos as a reason to restrict constitutional freedoms; when the state seeks to use violence and chaos as a reason not to dialogue.

But more portent is when violence and chaos, including state sponsored violence, lulls the population to simply seek "normalcy".

Now that Kenyans are starting to understand, in stark terms, the adage that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", it should be clear that normalcy for the sake of normalcy is the beginning of the slide to repression.

As Kenya moves forward, searching for direction, the media will have a special role in focusing the country and the international community on long- term solutions and dangers of short-term political fixes. A government of national unity, for example, can at best give you a few years of peace. In fact, Kenya had a government of "national unity" before the elections so we know that can’t do the trick.

* Special contribution to IPS. Sisule F. Musungu is a Kenyan lawyer based in Geneva and a director at IQsensato, an international development think tank. He is a member of the Society for International Development&#39s East Africa Scenarios Project team.

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