Did Kenya media drop its watchdog role during elections?
The Kenyan media has been praised by many for calming the country and preaching peace during the hotly contested elections that was won by Jubilee Coalition of Uhuru Kenyatta. However, others have attacked it for self censorship in covering the elections.
After the elections, he Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC),which was supposed to be under media scrutiny to deliver a credible election, was full of praise for the media for charting the country safely through the week-long wait for the presidential election results.
Interestingly in the course of the tallying process, when the main coalitions raised complaints, IEBC chief executive officer James Oswago during one of the press briefings, asked if there was any question. Only Ayiecho Olweny of Cord asked the IEBC a question. No journalist asked a single question yet many Kenyans had expressed concerns about the delay in presidential poll results and the electronic tallying system.
At one point, most TV stations started airing peace messages, reminding Kenyans that they should not go back to the dark days of the 2007/8 post-election violence. The foreign media was castigated for looking for those negative stories in a peaceful environment. The media failed to cover or just ignored pockets of protests by some supporters of Cord in Kisumu angered by the announcement of the final presidential election.
It is commendable for the media to preach peace but not at the expense of the watchdog role that has been bestowed to it by the public. It is the media that has the social responsibility to raise concerns of any group of citizens in any public or governance process.
Today, enthusiasts of social media are full of pent up anger with wild attacks to perceived supporters of the winners and losers. What we are perceiving as the hard won peace is indeed scars of millions who believe they did not lose the elections fairly. Although TV stations kept showing the celebratory mood by citizens in several parts of the country, this was not the general feeling of the entire Kenyan populace yet it is sometimes better to let losers mourn their loss and move on.
Cord’s leader Raila Odinga, when he declared he will challenge the results in court, mentioned that there was a conspiracy of silence by the Kenyan media. He did not elaborate on that but coming from a seasoned politician, who has been a darling of the media for so long, this needs further probing.
In his article, Kenyan elections and the media: Complex illusions, Nicholas Benequista makes very interesting arguments about the Kenyan media’s watchdog role and the illusion of peace in the country.
He says: “Among those national needs is certainly the preservation of peace, but Kenyan media cannot forever remain a polite space where differences are swept under the rug to be replaced by a consensually agreed (rather than imposed) agenda of nationalistic propaganda.”
He argues that: “The good stories, the positive angles, should be included, no doubt, and people need to be reassured in times of crisis. The real challenge to forming a national narrative, however, is how to include conflict, injustice, suffering, and inequality – how to promote mutual understanding on the themes that divide us.”
The political class has shown maturity by going to court to challenge the result but it did not go without notice that when the Chief Justice Willy Mutunga was handed the certificate of the President-elect by IEBC, he implored the media to beam live the election petition to afford fairness in the whole process. In other words, he may be fearing that the media may shun the live coverage to promote peace.
It is a fact that in 2007 the media was accused of fanning post-election violence and it probably affected the tone and coverage during the 2013 elections. In some cases, coverage of the elections last week seemed to imply that the media was trying to be extra careful not to raise tensions and indirectly instigate violence. Maybe being careful and tactical in coverage is something that all Kenyans needed, but for democracy to thrive, the Fourth Estate needs to keep a watchful eye on institutions of governance.