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The media in Kenya continues to be the target of intense criticism over its coverage of the elections in March. It is thought to have shirked its watchdog role and focused on peace messages. But supporters say that was necessary, given the circumstances

One of the lasting images of media coverage of the last election is arguably that of NTV reporter/presenter Larry Madowo. On Election Day, March 4, Madowo started off with a live report at a polling station in Nairobi. After a short while, he was back up on TV reporting from Garissa Town.

There were long queues and voters had started grumbling that the process was too slow, Madowo informed the world, standing beside a queue of bored Muslim women braving the burning sun. Next he was live from Lamu. Long queues again, but everything was going fine, he gushed and gesticulated. Minutes later he resurfaced in Tana River County. Not very long queues. Many voters had been displaced during last year’s deadly inter-ethnic violence. He then flew back to Nairobi where he spent the rest of the day – and most of the night – giving updates and commentary on the election.

Where Larry Madowo got that truly amazing amount of energy is a minor issue. The real question is about the quality of his reporting. With that kind of fly-past coverage in all those areas during a complex and potentially contentious election, what kind of information did Larry Madowo gather and present to the public? How able was he to critically monitor the electoral process and question the concerned officials? Or was everything okay everywhere, except for the long queues?

Madowo’s helicopter journalism pretty much mirrored the election coverage by mainstream media, which has come under intense criticism in recent months. Throughout Election Day, the typical TV news story was about massive voter turnout and minor hiccups such as delays in opening of polling stations. The other story was about where the leading presidential candidates voted and what they said thereafter – they called for peace, urged voters to come out and exercise their democratic right, and so and so forth.

But was that all that happened on March 4? Not at all. Marauding gangs ambushed police officers and election officials at the Coast region, killing several of them at dawn on Election Day. Though TV and radio stations were live throughout, the story was not reported until many hours later, and without much detail. The police version of what happened was all that reporters relayed. The attack was the work of the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) militants. Nobody considered any other possibility. Could it be that attacks were carried out by hired goons their aim being to disrupt voting in an area that was considered the stronghold of a certain coalition party? The media had no time for such scepticism, the cornerstone of all good journalism.

Just days after the election, human rights defender Muthoni Wanyeki wrote in her column in the East African regional weekly (March 9-15) that on the night before polling day, a gang of about 50 youths had gone from house to house in Nairobi’s volatile Mathare slum confiscating identity cards at gun-point. There were no such reports in the media. Yet the mere fact that the editors at the East African chose to publish that column lends credence to Wanyeki’s report. Could there have been similar incidents in other places?

As it would later emerge, the costly electronic voting system set up with much fanfare by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) failed in many places. Observers and alert voters spoke of people being allowed to vote without IDs, or leaving polling stations without being inked after casting their ballots. In certain areas there were credible reports that people whose names did not appear in the voters register were allowed to vote. There were also reports of voters being given more than one presidential ballot. And so on.

But the media did not see any of these things. Clearly, journalists and their media houses were not interested in playing watchdog. Why? There were ‘serious lapses in professional performance’, said veteran journalist John Gachie at a media review forum in Nairobi. The Kenyan media was ‘mute’ during the election.

Capital FM news editor Michael Mumo said he found it puzzling that, media outlets played down the attack in Mombasa at dawn on Election Day and largely ignored a press conference called by CORD to complain about alleged election-related irregularities. Yet there are those who believe the media did a splendid job, among them IEBC chairman Isaack Hassan who, when announcing the long-awaited presidential results on March 9, commended ‘the media, especially the local media’ for their professionalism. A short while later, Uhuru Kenyatta echoed the sentiments when delivering his acceptance speech at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

Days later, several articles united in their chorus of praise for the media appeared in the local papers. They chastised foreign journalists who had allegedly come to cover the election expecting an outbreak of violence.

A number of articles particularly by foreign commentators that were critical of Kenyan media’s performance, accusing journalists and media managers of self-censorship, were rubbished by some Kenyan journalists, media owners and other commentators. This awful attempt to silence foreign critics was ostensibly premised on defence of national sovereignty – yet some of Kenya’s leading media houses have foreign interests.

Those who have defended Kenyan media base their argument on the context of the coverage. ‘In order to comprehend the role we played, it is important to reflect upon the unfortunate events of 2008 when our beloved country went to the brink of violence visited upon the population leading to a shocking 1,300 deaths through the 2007-08 post-election violence,’ Kiprono Kittony, the chairman of the Media Owners Association, wrote recently.

This explanation is based on the widely held view that the media was culpable in the 2007-8 post-election violence. But at the time this accusation was made, media owners came out strongly to defend the media, saying they simply did their job.

Moreover, if indeed the media played an active role in stoking the post-election violence, why has no journalist been found guilty of the same? Of course former Kass FM radio presenter Joshua arap Sang is facing charges at the International Criminal Court. But his guilt has not been proved. And no journalist has been taken to court in Kenya in the last five years over the 2007-8 PEV. So, why would anyone argue that the PEV provided the context in which this year’s election was covered? The PEV sounds like an excuse.

But Kittony is not alone this baffling defence of the mainstream media’s glaring abdication of professional responsibility in this year’s election. Respected linguist and Kiswahili scholar Prof. Kimani Njogu told another media forum in Nairobi that the media’s watchdog role is defined by context and that media may not perform that role all the time.

‘The watchdog role is context-dependent. There are moments when the watchdog role becomes extremely urgent and critical. And there are moments, especially in states that are in transition like Kenya, when that watchdog function is momentarily suspended for some other collective good.’

He explained that, in his view, the media felt that in this year’s election there was a bigger responsibility to keep the nation together, which superseded the need to ‘provide critical analysis of the electoral process’. Really? It is a position supported by the chairman of Kenya Editor’s Guild and Nation Media Group editor Macharia Gaitho who went further to justify the media’s pre-occupation with peace during the election period.

‘Preaching peace is not bad, especially when you look at the trauma we came out of in 2007-8’, he said. ‘It was important that we play our part in averting possible chaos’. Where was the evidence of ‘possible chaos’? Or did the media simply give in to its’ own fear?

‘The media in this country was operating under a very delicate context. The weight of the events of 2007-8 was very heavy on the shoulders not just of the media; of all the stakeholders in the election process. That was the context,’ NTV Managing Editor, Linus Kaikai, said.

And what was the cost of temporarily suspending the watchdog role during such an important period in the nation’s life?

‘What I can admit is that maybe the media was overcautious,’ Kaikai said. ‘Number two, we over-trusted the IEBC. We simply thought that if the IEBC got it right in the 2010 referendum and in a number of constituencies [in by-elections">, the level of competence it had demonstrated was very encouraging. We thought the IEBC was on top of things, but it has emerged clearly that it wasn’t.’

So, the Kenyan media focused on ensuring a peaceful election, so much so that journalists decided not to critically observe the electoral process or to interrogate the IEBC. If that was not shirking professional responsibility, what could possibly be?

But was the media aware that IEBC could bungle the election, by design or sheer incompetence? Of course! On February 3, a full month before the election, Sunday Nation columnist Ahmednasir Abdullahi published an article titled, ‘Can the electoral body pass integrity test?’ Interestingly, the lawyer would later successfully defend IEBC and its chairman Hassan in the Supreme Court petition brought by CORD presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

In that article, Ahmednasir noted that Kenyans had rarely been critical of the IEBC because the commission was seen as an improvement on its predecessor, the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya. People also simply didn’t want to contemplate for a moment what would happen if the commission bungled the 2013 election as it happened in 2007. In this way, the commission ‘forced many Kenyans into silence using fear as immunity from public scrutiny’. The media as well.

IEBC’s voter registration was ‘the same as five years ago, showing a poor penetration,’ Ahmednasir wrote. Voter education was ‘dismal’. And the commission had serious financial management issues.

‘The issues of financial management have a profound bearing on electoral integrity. If the IEBC can’t pass the test of financial integrity, Kenyans shouldn’t expect it to pass electoral probity and integrity,’ Ahmednasir concluded.

Regarding the conduct of the IEBC during the chaotic political parties nominations, he said he saw danger signs of a systemic lack of integrity, disregard for the law, lack of political independence, pandering to politicians and outright corruption.

‘This I observed first-hand as a lawyer who participated in the process. This is worrying in that, having seen how some of the commissioners cut corners with the law and integrity, what guarantees do we have that the same commissioners will not do the same on March 4?’ he posed darkly.

No media house took up this grave matter. Could it be that media houses decided not to pursue the ‘danger signs’ at IEBC because they had temporarily suspended their watchdog function in the interest of ‘peace’? Only after the election results were announced did the media begin to carry reports critical of the IEBC, bringing to wider public attention the very ‘danger signs’ that Ahmednassir had flagged.

What of Ahmednasir Abdullahi? He is not just a lawyer and Sunday Nation columnist. He is a media owner, publisher of The Nairobi Law Monthly. In his hands the respected magazine has continued the crusading tradition of its founder, lawyer-cum-politician Gitobu Imanyara. Over the past two years the publication has carried fearless investigative reports about grand corruption and abuse of power.

Ahmednasir had all that damning information about the rot at IEBC. Why didn’t he publish an exposé in The Nairobi Law Monthly about such a huge national scandal, instead of a column inside the Sunday Nation? Had he also suspended his watchdog role in the interest of ‘peace’?

Right from the days leading to March 4 until the presidential election results were declared, the media appeared to have handed itself entirely to the IEBC. Besides routine reports from the field, news content was about what mandarins at the electoral body said. The lowest point in the election coverage, as many people would recall, was that day when on live TV, IEBC CEO James Oswago gave a brief update and invited questions from journalists. There was none.

What else did the media know? Days before the election, journalists were aware of likely failure of the much-hyped electronic voter system.

‘The testing [of electronic kits"> was done at Moi international Sports Centre, Kasarani. The IEBC team demonstrated [to journalists">, but some of them actually malfunctioned on the spot. The explanation was that the kits had just arrived and the problem could be humidity,’ Kaikai said.

On February 24, a week to the election, IEBC did a test run of the electronic system in the presence of reporters at Bomas of Kenya, the national tallying centre, but it did not work perfectly. ‘But we trusted them to have it fixed in a week’s time,’ Kaikai said.

One wonders what other clues of impending election trouble the media had but looked the other way in order to promote ‘peace’. Dr. Tom Wolf, a research analyst with pollster Ipsos Synovate, was quite scathing in his criticism of the media coverage of the 2013 election. ‘They should have right away started interrogating, for example, why we were seeing such a high turnout in central Kenya and Ukambani and what would be the implication for the result,’ he said.

The media should as well have attempted to analyse voting behaviour as the results came in. ‘Where are the people voting and where are they not? Is the MRC really having a major impact in voting at the Coast, for example? If the Coast was supposed to be an ODM stronghold why were the votes not as high as expected’? Journalists, he said, should have used election reporting as an opportunity for national political education.

Indeed. But was that important in the mind of Larry Madowo and his brothers and sisters in the trade? The overriding concern was ‘peace’.

* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News



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