Did the Kenyan Media Do Justice to the 2013 Election Coverage?

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As President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto prepare to attend their trials at the International Criminal Court in the Hague in the coming weeks, Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah reflects on the media’s role in the 2013 general elections, and how it may have helped Kenyatta’s presidential campaign. She also analyses the fault lines within civil society organisations that the two leaders used to their advantage.

On Sunday, 10 March 2013, the day after Kenya’s electoral commission, the IEBC, declared Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of the hotly contested presidential election by a slight margin, writer Binyavanga Wainaina wrote an article for The Guardian that seemed to reflect the jubilant and defiant mood of at least half the electorate in which he echoed the Kenyatta-led Jubilee Alliance’s rallying cry. “Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,” Wainaina wrote. “The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.”

Wainaina may have later regretted making such a hasty judgement, particularly as mounting evidence of electoral malpractices emerged. However, he spoke to many Kenyans who had been subjected to a barrage of warnings by Western diplomats about the consequences of electing Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, both of whom had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity related to the violence that followed the disputed 2007 elections.

Kenyatta’s stridently “anti-imperialist” campaign, which was clearly intended to discredit the ICC as racist and anti-African, and Wainaina’s warning to diplomats that they should not interfere in Kenya’s internal affairs, were preceded by alarmist reports in the international press that suggested that Kenya was on the brink of the kind of violence witnessed after the 2007 elections that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced about 600,000.

A CNN report showing four “militia” preparing for war in the Rift Valley region was quickly dismissed by Kenya’s prolific online community as a fabricated work intended to malign the country’s reputation. Kenyans, it seemed, were determined not to allow the international media to portray it as a basket-case that could not hold peaceful elections. Under the Twitter hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN, Kenyan scientist Calestous Juma posted: “BREAKING: Foreign reporters clash in #Kenya amid growing scarcity of bad news.”

“Professional surrender”

To the other extreme, the local media displayed extreme caution and restraint, bordering on self-censorship, in terms of how it reported the election. When gangs ambushed and killed police officers and attacked a polling station in Kenya’s Coast region, where a group calling itself the Mombasa Republican Council had been making demands for secession, and had even threatened to boycott the elections, the story was barely reported in the local press. Similar acts of violence and disturbances in other parts of the country were also downplayed, perhaps in the belief that reporting these events would trigger copycat incidents elsewhere, or would make the violence appear more widespread than it really was.

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 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.

The “move on” mantra

Underlying the anti-Western rhetoric was a sub-text that cast Western donors and donor-funded civil society organisations in the same mould. Prominent democracy and governance organisations that questioned the legitimacy of ICC indictees running for the country’s top offices were labelled by some commentators as foreign stooges intent on disrupting the peace and undermining Kenya’s sovereignty.

Kenyatta and his deputy Ruto employed a clever strategy that used the ICC as their main selling point — their candidature became more appealing precisely because they had been indicted. By presenting themselves as victims that were being used as “sacrificial lambs” by their opponents, they turned the election into a life-and-death struggle.

In many of their speeches, the duo, dubbed Uhu-Ruto, branded the election and their intended victory as a “referendum against the ICC,” implying that a victory would dilute the ICC’s charges against them as the people of Kenya would have endorsed their leadership through the ballot. This view was later endorsed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who described the Uhu-Ruto victory as a “rejection of the blackmail by the ICC and those who seek to abuse this institution for their own agenda.”

Kenya’s civil society, which had been at the forefront of the call for reforms throughout the 1990s and had pushed for a new constitution after the mayhem of 2007-2008, were now being labelled “gratuitous rabble rousers”, dancing to the tune of their masters, the Western donors that funded them.

Kenyatta’s inaugural victory speech on 9 April 2013 served to reinforce the message that perhaps civil society organisations had failed to read the mood of at least half the country, which was ready to “move forward” and embark on the path of economic development.

The “peace” that was supposedly maintained, however, is not reflected in social media, which Kenyans have been using to hurl insults at each other. The ethnic bigotry displayed in some of the postings reflects a country that is still deeply divided, both ethnically and politically.

In Part 2 of this series, I will examine the fault lines within civil society organisations that were exploited by the Uhu-Ruto campaign to garner support in their bid to take over leadership of the country.

Rasna Warah is a contributor to Sahan Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @RasnaWarah or email her at rasna.warah@gmail.com

Cartoon courtesy of Godfrey Mwampembwa/Gado

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