When the press fails the people: A critique of Kenya's media
ext week, Kenya is set to repeat a presidential election following last month’s unprecedented nullification of the August 8 poll. The events the nation has witnessed since the September 1 ruling by the Supreme Court have proven to be the greatest test of the country’s 2010 constitution and the institutions it sets up – especially the media.
Kenya’s media is the only industry specifically protected by the constitution. This is remarkable considering that most of Kenya’s press is actually in private hands. However, the industry’s well-cultivated international reputation for independence and vibrant reporting has locally always been considered to be somewhat overstated, given its penchant for superficial regurgitation of politicians’ statements and unwillingness to engage in investigative reporting that establishes the truth.
These weaknesses have been ruthlessly exposed in its coverage of the last three election cycles: in 2007 when it was accused of inciting ethnic violence; in 2013 when it was said to have preached “peace” and overlooked problems with the polls; and most recently in the annulled August election when it essentially did not report to work.
In the run-up to the vote, the media privileged the drama of competition over its mandate to inform the electorate. Journalists did a good job of reporting on campaign rhetoric but seemed much less able and willing to unpack the policies and issues that various candidates were presenting. Numerous panel discussions on television featured surrogates for the two main contenders shouting over one another and, in the process, managing to shed more darkness on already obscure subject matters such as the technicalities of the law governing the election.
Media coverage hit a new low once the official campaign period was declared at the end of May. According to election rules adopted just a year ago, the government is forbidden from campaigning for any candidate as well as “publish[ing] any advertisements of achievements … either in the print media, electronic media, or by way of banners or hoardings in public places during the election period.” Ignoring this, the President’s Delivery Unit, an outfit set up to, among other things, “report on and the timely fulfillment of H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s key development priorities”, continued running ads on local TV extolling the benefits Kenyans had accrued from Kenyatta’s first term. Despite the obvious illegality and abuse of public resources, media houses were only too happy to turn a blind eye and pocket the dough.
But things were to get worse. A 2016 High Court ruling, confirmed by the Court of Appeal in January, declared that presidential election results publicly announced at the country’s 290 constituencies could not be changed by officials at the national level. This meant that the media did not have to rely on election officials in Nairobi but could conduct its own tallies and even project the winner. In fact, many media houses said that this was exactly what they planned to do.
So it was more than a little curious that as results started streaming in on election night, they reported only the numbers that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was putting out in Nairobi. When the opposition, the National Super Alliance coalition, disputed the veracity of the IEBC numbers, the media did not appear to have their own figures to compare. More than two months since the election, not a single media house has published an independent record of what was announced at the constituency tallying centres.
"The media has failed to prepare the country for the possibility of the current political crisis mutating into a constitutional one..."
As election night wore on, the coverage deteriorated from concerning to farcical. KTN, one of the country’s leading TV stations, had commissioned an exit poll in which respondents were deliberately not asked how they voted – an omission which, one would think, defeats the entire purpose of exit polling.
As tensions in the country began to rise, small protests broke out, which were widely, if sensationally, covered by the international press. Most local media, afraid of inciting another 2008-style conflagration, initially chose to ignore these incidents. This created room for partisan propangadists to flood social media with fake reports that either attempted to deny the protests were happening or to exaggerate their size, their significance and the brutality of the government’s response.
Raila Odinga’s petition contesting the declaration of Kenyatta as President-elect provided another opportunity for the Kenyan media to redeem itself. But again, it disappointed. Though the proceedings were broadcast live by most TV stations (as they had been in the identical 2013 petition), there was little in the way of explanation to help Kenyans make sense of the courtroom antics and the case that was being presented.
In the period since the decision to annul the election, the media has once again played second fiddle to politicians, repeating the propaganda declarations from both sides without question. It has failed to prepare the country for the possibility of the current political crisis mutating into a constitutional one, and to help the public think through options outside those presented by the two contesting sides.
The fourth estate in Kenya has continued to be plagued by both ethical and professional failures. The roots of many of its problems can be traced back to the dawn of the era of multiparty electoral competition in 1992.
As Dr Okoth Fred Mudhai, a senior lecturer in journalism at the UK’s Coventry University noted in his 2007 article Time to harvest? Media, corruption and elections in Kenya, “some journalists have viewed election period as the best time to harvest bribes”. He details instances in the previous 15 years where top journalists and senior editors in the country’s largest media establishments had been accused of accepting inducements to influence coverage of politicians particularly around election time.
“We too easily stand condemned as scribes of shame,” Kwendo Opanga, a popular columnist who himself admitted receiving money from the then-ruling party, wrote in 1996.
Aside from the much lamented “brown envelope journalism” – the practice of journalists accepting money from sources – the industry also suffers from a host of structural and professional challenges.
Ownership and independence
Although the liberalisation of the press has resulted in a relatively large number of media outlets and owners, the dominance of a few media conglomerates, primarily the Nation Media Group, the Standard Group, Royal Media Services and the Radio Africa Group, along with extensive cross-media ownership, can severely restrict the variety of viewpoints on offer. Further, many politicians have become media owners (especially of radio stations), either directly or via proxies. As Othieno Nyanjom noted in his paper Factually true, legally untrue: Political Media Ownership in Kenya, “the scope for political interference in such stations is vast”.
The reliance on advertising revenue, especially from government, makes the media even more vulnerable. In January last year, the Daily Nation was pressured into firing one of its top editors after he penned a New Year’s Day editorial critical of Kenyatta. This came just months after the same paper had cancelled the contract of renowned cartoonist Godfrey “Gado” Mwampembwa due to pressure from the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. (The Nation’s sister regional paper, The East African, had been banned in Tanzania after a Gado cartoon incensed then president Jakaya Kikwete.)
Kenyan newsrooms also suffer from a deficit of experienced journalists. Many of the best have been poached by international outlets where they have gone on to build sterling careers. Others have been promoted out of the newsrooms and into the boardrooms, where the incentive is less to tell the truth than to turn profits. This, combined with the rise of celebrity journalists and newscasters, has led to newsrooms that prefer a superficial and sensational treatment of the news, where institutional memory, even of events that happened just a decade ago, is virtually non-existent. Thus the media has neither the desire nor, in many cases, the ability to report the news in nuanced and contextualised ways that draw lessons from history.
As Kenya sails into the uncharted waters of a repeat presidential election and a possible constitutional crisis, the media has yet another opportunity to redeem itself and to serve the public good. This it can do by reclaiming the wheel from politicians and beginning to lay out the agenda for the country outside the political considerations of the leading candidates.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” An informed citizenry is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy. The media’s role in ensuring the people collectively understand the challenges and choices facing them and hold rulers to account cannot be gainsaid. For too long, Kenya’s media has taken this onerous responsibility for granted – it must begin to do better.
(Main image: Tobin Jones/AFP/Getty)