- To Be Prudent Is to Be Partial By MICHELA WRONG
- NAIROBI — Over the years I’ve come to view the Kenyan media with a mixture
of respect and affection.
- Latitude The Campaign for Kenya. A series about the country’s first general election under its new
In the 1990s, I watched in awe as Kenyan photographers dodged Daniel arap
Moi’s club-wielding riot police<http://articles.
When their colleagues in the newsroom exposed financial scandals, ranging
from Goldenberg <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/
I pasted their articles into my files.
- Like the press pack anywhere, Kenyan journalists liked their beer and could wolf down a buffet in a heartbeat, and the odd brown envelope definitely changed hands. But they were brave.
“The best press in Africa,” I told anyone who cared to listen.
So Kenya’s recent election<http://www.nytimes.
been a baffling, frustrating time.
In the last few weeks, Western journalists — myself included — have become
pariahs, lambasted by Kenya’s twitterati and Facebook users for our
coverage and threatened by the government with
The fury seems exaggerated, given the relative rarity of offending
articles. Western reports have attracted undue interest, I’m convinced,
because domestic coverage, while increasingly slick, has been so lifeless.
It sometimes feels as though a zombie army has taken up position where
Kenya’s feisty media used to be, with local reporters going glaze-eyed
through the motions.
This malaise was most obvious last week during briefings by the Independent
Electoral and Boundaries Commission at the tallying center in Bomas, just
outside Nairobi, when what had been billed as a high-tech, tamper-proof
to unravel spectacularly<http://www.
The Kenyan media of old would have gone for the jugular. But when the
commission chairman, Issack Hassan, after describing yet another puzzling
technical glitch or mysterious delay, asked, “Any questions?” the response
was stunned silence.
It was the same when independent election monitors announced their
findings. Given just how many anomalies were surfacing, the upbeat
assessments of observers from the African Union, the European Union and the
Commonwealth seemed inexcusably complacent<http://www.
Yet once again, Kenyan journalists left most of the questions to their Western counterparts.
Lethargy should not be mistaken for laziness. Yes, rumors are swirling
about payoffs and conflicts of interest. But this professional surrender,
ironically, appears to stem from the very best of intentions.
During the violence that followed the 2007 election<http://www.nytimes.
rival ethnic communities, Kenya’s media played a not-entirely-innocent
role. Hate speech spread by vernacular radio stations<http://www.irinnews.
Rwanda. One of the three indictees facing trial before the International
Criminal Court in The Hague is Joshua arap Sang<http://africanarguments.
who ran the Kalenjin-language radio station Kass FM.
Chastened by that experience, media executives reached a gentlemen’s
avoid anything that might whip up ethnic tensions ahead of this year’s
election. There would be no live coverage of announcements or press
conferences by political parties.
“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster
told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there
was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if
necessary, of our liberties.”
But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision
not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor
of whoever took an early
in this case Uhuru
Hours after the CORD alliance of the opposition leader Raila Odinga
announced that it wanted the tallying of ballots
listeners that everything was on track. That may have prevented passions in
Odinga’s Luo community from exploding, but it was a massive distortion of
the truth. Patrick Gathara
The local media swiftly fell into the habit of brushing off CORD’s
declarations. Television broadcasts of Odinga’s announcement that he would
challenge the outcome of the election before the Supreme Court
switched to Uhuru’s acceptance speech<http://www.nytimes.com/
the lawsuits being prepared by CORD and civil society groups.
The Kenyan media’s self-restraint reveals a society terrified by its own
capacity for violence. “What maturity is this that trembles at the first
sign of disagreement or challenge?” asked the Kenyan cartoonist Patrick
Gathara in a superb blog post<http://gathara.blogspot.
citing a national “peace lobotomy.” He went on: “What peace lives in the
perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?”
Shortly before handing Uhuru his winner’s certificate, the chairman of the
election commission congratulated <http://www.3-mob.com/?p=10106
Kenyan media on their “exemplary behavior.” As he did, the screen above his
head was showing figures that did not add up.
Any journalist worth their salt should start feeling itchy when praised by
those in authority. The recent accolades will chafe as more polling
irregularities become public. The media should be asking themselves
whether, in their determination to act responsibly, they allowed another
major abuse to occur right before their eyes.
- More from this series »<http://latitude.blogs.
Michela Wrong has covered Africa for nearly two decades, reporting for
Reuters, the BBC and The Financial Times. She is the author of “It’s Our
Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower.”