Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Kenyan media's highs and lows

There is little disagreement that the Kenyan media tackled the country's recent election very differently to the one before. In 2008 they were blamed for playing up the divisions that led to violence, epitomised in Joshua arap Sang's inclusion in the list of International Criminal Court suspects for galvanising ethnic hatred through his broadcasts at Kass FM. This year, however, most in Kenya agree that the media's commitment to consensus-building helped support the largely peaceful unfolding of events.

At the same time, an attitude of consensus-building does not satisfy everyone. Those who felt the electoral irregularities were too large to ignore have deplored the lack of scrutiny the media showed towards the Independent Electoral Boundary Commission. Most adamantly, Michela Wrong has criticised the Kenyan media, going so far as to write: "The Kenyan media's self-restraint reveals a society terrified by its own capacity for violence." In response, journalist of The Nation, Hesbon Nyakundi, argued back: "If the Kenyan media has erred in 2013, it has erred on the side of caution, and lives and property have been saved on an incalculable scale."

There are two things missing in Michela Wrong's assessment, which is why her criticism of the Kenyan media is off the mark. First of all, she does not show appreciation for the two televised presidential debates conducted before the election and organised by the country's media groups. The debates showed how active the media were in fostering the country's democratic participation and Tim Wigmore has written in support of their impact, arguing that it has been a force for issue-based rather than insult-based politics.

Second, and most importantly, Michela Wrong's understanding of the role of journalists is undergird by a commitment to politics through separation of powers. Her ideal situation is for all parties to be separate before holding each other to account, almost like lawyers taking on the different sides of a case for the sake of effective representation. The problem with this is that real politics does not have a neutral judge. When institutions are weak and there is no clear separation of powers, journalists have to also think through the impact their stance will have, and cannot simply imagine a neutral arbiter will appear to save the day. This may not be ideal but it is a pragmatic reality and something Kenyan journalists have been increasingly aware of.

Journalists in Kenya are seeing how responsibility must come with power. It is about time we saw that too.

(For those interested, I have written an article here which analyses the 2006 raid on the Standard Group - an influential media house in Kenya. Whichever way you look at it, the media are in a better situation now than they were then. That article has also been translated into GermanFrenchRussian and Chinese.)