By Susan Linnee Posted Apr 1 2008
For years, the Kenyan media observed the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo as though their regional neighbors were somehow in another—and very dangerous—world far from their peaceful nation.
Kenya received refugees from countries with other conflicts. Trucks bearing the seal of the International Committee of the Red Cross traversed the East African nation carrying tents, relief food and other supplies to the victims of war and genocide, and specialized agencies of the United Nations brought millions of dollars into the country and employed hundreds of Kenyans in their regional offices that dealt with the faraway disasters.
Kenyan diplomats and negotiators mediated a settlement to the 20-year civil war in Sudan and helped pull together yet another transitional government in Somalia.
But, the Kenyan media rarely sent its own reporters or photographers to cover regional violence, relying instead on international agencies for their news of the world. The monstrous events of 1994 in Rwanda, a 50-minute plane ride from Nairobi, were as alien to Kenyans as they were to people most everywhere.
Then, on the evening of December 29, as members of the Electoral Commission of Kenya droned out results of the December 27 presidential election, the most hotly contested in the country’s 44 years of independence, dozens of people ran riot through the main street of the normally quiet western town of Kisumu, the stronghold of the main opposition candidate Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe. Within hours, the businesses on the street had been set afire and looted as guests watched from the upper floors of the Kisumu Hotel. Then the rioters began to go after those who might have dared to vote for President Mwai Kibaki—or who were simply members of his Kikuyu ethnic group, the largest of the 42 in Kenya.
Early results broadcast nationwide over radio and television had indicated that Odinga was in the lead. Then, as results came in from Kibaki’s home turf in Central Province, it began to look as though the tide had turned. Pandemonium broke out in the Kenyatta International Conference Center in downtown Nairobi where the votes were being tallied and read out. ECK chairman Samuel Kivuitu then halted counting until the following day.
In the mid-afternoon of Sunday December 30, Kivuitu first appeared on, then disappeared from the live TV broadcasts, then suddenly appeared again on the state-run channel KBC to declare Kibaki the winner; a few hours later, he was sworn in on another live KBC broadcast in what appeared to be a hastily convened ceremony. A short time later when other live broadcasts showed riots breaking out in the sprawling slums that surround much of Nairobi and where many Odinga supporters live, the internal security minister declared a ban on all TV and radio broadcast from the field and banned all mass demonstrations as well. The minister, John Michuki, a longtime ally and business friend of Kibaki, was the same man who several years earlier had led an unexplained attack on The Standard Group, the nation’s oldest media outlet that includes the Standard newspapers and KTN television. His words then to reporters were: “when you find a snake, you cut off its head.”
In the past decade, the Kenyan media world has undergone tremendous expansion, particularly in television and radio. Although not entirely devoid of the urge to exercise ultimate control over the airwaves, Kibaki’s economically laissez-faire government that took power in 2003 licensed several terrestrial TV stations, including the brand new 24-hour K-24, to bring the country’s total to seven, as well as dozens of FM radio stations, many of them in local languages.
The newspaper world of the East African Standard and the Daily and Sunday Nation also grew with the addition of two “down market” dailies—Nairobi Star and Daily Metro—and a business newspaper, the Business Daily. The latter two are the most recent additions to the stable of the Nation Media Group, whose principal shareholder is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.
Mugumo Munene has been a journalist for seven years and recently became news editor at the Sunday Nation after returning from a five-month fellowship at the Kansas City Star.
Referring to the violent reaction that followed the declaration of Kibaki’s victory, Munene said it should have been possible to foresee at least some aspects of the events that followed from the way the campaigns were conducted and how journalists got involved.
“All this started way back last year as politicians were preparing their campaigns. It became apparent when they invited journalists to become their media consultants; they worked at newspapers during the day and moonlighted at night for the politicians,” he said. “We noticed this in their stories. They had become too close to the politicians.”
“The editors’ job got harder because we had to look out for hidden biases, rather than just editing the copy. No one was prepared for what happened after the results of the election were announced. Reporters still kept their biases, and there is more pressure on editors to keep taking out the biases.”
Munene said the newspaper’s management sent emails warning staff against bias and inciting ethnic tensions. But no one was fired, he said, “because bias is difficult to prove.”
In addition to its headquarters in Nairobi—the nerve center and main focus of all the Kenyan media—the Nation Media Group has five bureaus throughout the country and between 50 and 100 staff and stringers. It is well known in Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Mombasa and Nyeri who works for which newspaper, radio and TV station. The Standard Group and KTN have similar bureaus.
“There is a very high likelihood that we haven’t covered certain stories because of what has been going on, and how it would affect reporters there,” Munene said.
During the election campaign and the post-election crisis in which at least 1,000 people were killed and another 300,000 displaced, the major newspapers and the TV stations have not identified the various ethnic groups by name in an attempt to avoid inciting violence. Euphemisms like “a certain community” or “people from a certain part of the country” or “those who voted for a certain candidate” abound.
Although the conflict has been widely described both in the Kenyan and international media as tribal, the origins are far more complex and have much more to do with the perceived—and real—inequality in the distribution of wealth and power in post-colonial Kenya. And readers and listeners know which group is doing what to which other group anyway.
The day after the ban on live broadcasting was lifted on February 5, Samuel Poghisio, the new information minister, said the government was tracking information passed through the print and electronic media as well as via the Internet and text messages “to rein in” content that could endanger peace by exacerbating ethnic tensions or spreading hate. He said the focus would be on “errant media houses” as well as international correspondents and foreign news agencies. But, Poghisio said it is not at all clear whether the government has the means to carry out such surveillance.
Towards the end of January, the photo of a young child sitting near the body of its mother woman who had been hacked to death in the Rift Valley was circulated by e-mail through Kenyan media outlets but never showed up in print—in Kenya. It was on the front page of the January 29 government-owned New Vision newspaper in neighboring Uganda.
Ida Jooste, the resident journalism adviser in Kenya for Internews, the U.S.-based international organization that works to provide “information access for everyone,” says young Kenyan radio announcers, many of whom were hired for the new local language FM stations based solely on the quality of their voices, “were shocked at what they had unwittingly done or were not aware of doing” in broadcasting ethnic stereotypes and spreading what were little more than rumors. Few if any have any background in journalism.
A month after the violence broke out, Internews held a workshop—30 Days in Words and Pictures: Media Response in Kenya during the Election Crisis—to take stock of the situation. Jooste said 78 of the 80 people invited turned up, and many of them told of receiving threats related to how they or their papers, radios or TV stations were perceived to be covering the events.
Salim Amin, a Kenyan of South Asian background who is involved in setting up a 24-hour all-Africa TV channel, has been covering news throughout the region for more than a decade. He said initially he and his TV crew “found the police and the protestors to be quite accommodating, but as things got heated up, then we found that we were being target by police and their tear gas…but not the demonstrators.”
“But then I was asked if A-24 were up and running, how would it work with local crews? It’s a good question,” he said. “Now you can only send certain tribes to certain areas. In this particular story I’ve been proved very wrong; for the first time in Kenya, being a local journalist has been a disadvantage rather than an advantage…this has severely compromised coverage by the local media here.”