Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

KENYA: The Media Is Not Innocent

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, Feb 2 2008 (IPS) - The media was partly blamed for the Rwandan genocide 14 years ago which left nearly one million people dead in 100 days. "Kill the Inkotanyi [cockroaches]!" a local radio station urged its listeners at the time.

"30 Days in Words and Pictures: Media Response in Kenya During the Election Crisis" – a workshop organised here last week by California-based media advocacy group Internews – enabled media professionals to conduct a "self-audit" of the role local media played in the post-election violence. The audit revealed that media – especially vernacular radio stations – might be partly to blame for the on-going violence sparked off by the announcement of Mwai Kibaki as winner of the Dec. 27 elections.

The violence has reportedly claimed over 1,000 lives and displaced some 250,000 people since the December election.

David Ochami, a commissioner with the Media Council of Kenya, told IPS that long before the elections were held, vernacular radio stations had ignited ethnic consciousness among the listeners "making them support leaders from their own tribe and harbour bad feelings about people from other communities."

"The ethnic hate our radio station was propagating about those from outside the community was unbelievable. I can’t repeat any of those expressions at this forum," said a journalist with a vernacular radio station. "The unfortunate thing is we let these callers speak vile and laughed about it."

"We took sides in the issue and we became subjective, forgetting our professional tenet of objectivity and neutrality. In fact, this polarization was so bad in the newsrooms that some broadcast journalists refused to cover or read news that wasn’t favourable to the candidate or party they supported," said a journalist.

In fact, leading up to the elections the local media conveyed inflammatory campaign messages as advertisers’ announcements.

"Both print and broadcast media put money ahead of responsibility by accepting and conveying paid-for hate material," Mildred Baraza, a Nairobi- based journalist told IPS. "This could have incited the audience, and when they got a chance they avenged as a result of the pre-election messages," she said.

Redemtor Atieno, another Nairobi-based journalist who also helped to organise the workshop, is confident that the media’s biased reporting contributed to the mayhem in the country.

"Professionalism was thrown to the dogs as tribe and partisanship carried the day. We failed our audience by conveying interests of politicians without questioning the impact of our stories," Atieno told IPS.

Participants at the workshop also blamed media owners for playing a major role in encouraging the violence. "They had vested interests in either camp of the political divide," a reporter with Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) said, adding that he and his colleagues wanted to tell the real story but they couldn’t because the stories could portray the government in a bad light.

"We had beautiful clips and stories from the field, but we went back to the newsroom knowing that the story would never be used," he said.

Even privately owned media owners who backed different political parties had a hand in the stories that were carried. If it was about the party they supported, they exaggerated the story and generally depicted the opponents in negative ways.

"The media organizations refrained from telling the world the truth about what was happening," Ochami told IPS. "There has been a tendency of portraying the Kenyan crisis as a problem between two ethnic groups – where one [Kibaki’s Kikuyu] is victimized by another [opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Luo]. Any other story on the contrary is downplayed or ignored," Ochami explained.

There are those who believe the media is innocent and the violence currently rocking the country was bound to happen anyway – that historical economic inequalities among the Kenyan communities had to boil over at some point in time.

"The public vented long bottled-up anger. It was meant to explode whether the media encouraged it or not," said a journalist at the workshop. "Many people voted last year for change and it was a protest vote against years of inequalities. When they realized this would not happen when Kibaki was declared winner, they exploded."

Mitch Odera the moderator of the workshop and media consultant said one of the causes of Kenya’s unrest is the immaturity of its democracy. "There hasn’t been competitive democracy in our country. That is our problem," Odera told the participants at the workshop.

The government was also blamed for the chaos because it slapped a blanket ban on live broadcasters soon after violence broke out in the country.

"The ban did not extend to international media including the Internet which many Kenyans accessed and spread the word. This led to skewed information and hence panic and more destruction and deaths," said one journalist from the electronic media.

The Editors Guild – an organization of editors from all media organizations – went to court this week to challenge the ban on broadcasters.

Participants at the workshop also heard the first hand experiences of journalists who covered the post election violence. Practioners complained about threats to their lives and complained that they felt segregated from the rest of the country.

As the workshop was taking place participants were well aware that several political writers and analysts had received death threats for writing stories that were viewed as unfavourable towards the government.

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