Media handling of Kenya’s election protests calls for some soul-searching

Kenyan policemen in Kibera. The media stands accused of refusing to cover post-election tensions comprehensively. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The management of the public’s craving for negative stories is one of the longest standing dilemmas of journalism ethics. Bad news commands more attention than good news and so, as the old creed goes, “If it bleeds, it leads”.

By this rule book, the killings of least two dozen opposition protesters following the declaration of Kenya’s presidential should have elicited banner headlines and rolling TV news coverage. More so given that two of the victims were children – a six-month-old baby and 10-year-old girl shot dead while playing with friends.

The stage for this violent outcome had been set within hours of polls closing on August 8, when opposition coalition leaders held a press conference in the wee hours of the morning alleging manipulation of results. This followed early indications showing Jubilee Party’s Uhuru Kenyatta taking a commanding lead.

When Kenyatta was declared winner with 54% of the vote against Raila Odinga’s 44%, things took a turn for the worse. While Jubilee supporters took to the streets in celebration, Odinga’s supporters launched days of protests against what they viewed as a rigged election.

International viewers all over the world saw images of police brutality and general mayhem. But in Kenya itself, the coverage of killings, violent protests and police use of excessive force was downplayed in the mainstream media.

Yet the violence had been anticipated prior to the elections. All of the areas in which skirmishes broke out had been identified as hotspots likely to experience election related violence. The only thing in doubt was how severe they would be.

Why mainstream media chose to downplay the violent aftermath of the elections and the implications of this approach is the matter of agonised debate. It is a debate that has roots in the coverage of the post-election violence that engulfed Kenya in 2007-2008 leaving over 1,000 people dead and more than 500,000 displaced.

The legacy of 10 years ago

In the 2007 poll the mainstream media was roundly blamed for fanning the flames of civil unrest by broadcasting images of violence after Odinga disputed Mwai Kibaki’s presidential election victory.

In the 2013 elections the media was accused of pushing a peace narrative to avoid the mistakes made in 2007-2008. They were accused of abdicated their professional responsibility by urging the country to “accept and move on” after yet another contested election.

In 2017, the absence of mainstream coverage meant that citizen journalists filled the information vacuum with inflammatory reports of violence even where it had not occurred. This torrent of unverified reports fuelled tensions even further.

Deliberate failure to report

Kenya’s media failure to comprehensively report on the violence, and the excessive force employed by security officers against civilians, was informed by various factors. Top of these was the influence of external stakeholders.

Throughout the election period many conversations were held between media and various parties which impressed on them the need for responsible coverage. The parties included Kenya’s National Integration and Cohesion Commission, The Media Council of Kenya, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission itself, and civil society. The idea was to ensure that Kenyans went to the poll with minimum disruption and that there was conflict sensitive reporting.

It’s still unclear whether these appeals were directly responsible for what appeared to amount to self-censorship across big media. The media clearly avoided broadcasting confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement. For example, there were outbreaks of violence and excessive use of force in Nairobi and Kisumu on August 11 and 12. These only appeared on television broadcasts after social media reports.

Another contributing factor was the delays caused by extensive fact checking. Editors made the extra effort to triple check facts to guard against the avalanche of fake news.

This fact checking process meant that death toll figures were delayed as the press endeavoured to establish exactly how many people died after violent altercations with security officers. There continues to be disagreement on exactly how many people died. But many of them are alleged to have been victims of police brutality.

Implications of the ‘cautious’ approach

The coverage of Kenya’s 2017 post-election violence is likely to have wide-ranging effects on local media practice in Kenya. Alternative news sources quickly filled the information vacuum when the mainstream media took a back seat. If mainstream media does not play its active role, this pattern is likely to continue.

As policy analyst Nanjira Sambuli argues, Kenya became a victim of fake news that was spread through social media. One could reasonably argue that the media abrogated three of its primary roles: provision of information, being society’s watchdog and agenda setting.

A country’s trust in the media is quickly eroded when it’s viewed as failing to fulfil its primary role. The press is arguably society’s best watchdog and the Kenyan media has usually stood at the forefront in countering state excesses. Going by citizen reports of police using lethal force against civilians, it is clear that the watchdog went missing or came out too late.

There is also a growing feeling that the media has been compromised by the state. If this is indeed the case, then they will soon lose all power to hold the executive to account.

Moving forward, there is need for some self evaluation on the part of Kenyan media. It would be helpful to understand why things were not done differently. As Kenya continues to find its democratic footing, media remains an insuperable part of the growth.