I greatly admire all media persons working and operating in Kenya for defying the so-called norms that would have had them covering the elections excitably without any regard for the potential repercussions arising out of the environment in which they operate.
We’ve all talked about the bland coverage we’ve received these tense five days past, and the way it focused on simply reeling off election results without going into critical “what-if’s” and ‘projections’.
Admirable! I couldn’t have asked for more – even when I complained a little that during the IEBC Press Conferences there were few or no questions at all.
You see, we are used to seeing a frantic, almost rabid media at work covering elections on TV and online in the US, UK and other spots in the ‘free’ world.
But the manner in which elections are covered over there in ‘developed’ countries fits their bill quite well. We should stop thinking that we must follow suit as proof that we are also ‘free’ and appearing to be ‘developed’.
I have always argued that media professionals cannot operate the same way in all countries because we operate in different environments altogether, with different people, cultures and perspectives. The media in the United States, for example, can be as inflammatory as they want because members of the general public there would find it hard to organise themselves into death squads and go about decimating neighbourhoods with machetes and jerry cans of petrol.
Their intelligence and crime prevention systems are good enough to make it hard for someone to import a container of machetes, and mobilise enough ignorant crazy people to queue up for one each before being pointed into the direction of equally ignorant, unarmed ‘enemies’.
Not so for some of our countries, where too many people listen to the radio with the same fervent faith that the Israelites received Moses off the top of that mountain with the Ten Commandments.
Where in the US, for example, the average ignorant protest might go, “It’s true – I read it on the internet!”, in some of our countries people go, “It’s true – (This Big Man) said it on radio!”. And the influence of the media is made stronger in these countries of ours because we believe so much in the invincibility of ‘the Big Man’ (another discussion altogether but one we will talk about briefly here):
The invincibility of ‘the Big Man’ is brought about first by our being still too closely linked to our monarchical past, and is now perpetuated by the media that focuses mostly on the words and actions of ‘Big Men’.
That’s why it was heroic for the Kenyan media to take the bold decision during these election results coverage to refuse ‘Big Men’ audience. Under normal circumstances, every and any statement of conjecture by a military officer, political leader or jittery candidate would have made headlines on the hour every hour. But not in Kenya.
The local media in Kenya, apparently under a gentleman’s agreement – cited by the likes of The Independent – agreed to work for peace across Kenya in order to avoid a repeat of the 2007-8 violence.
Now, I haven’t gone anywhere to do a Master’s Thesis or Doctorate in media studies in order to state how wrong or odd this might be from any paradigm, and I think that, for once, it’s a good thing not to have any of these biases. Using basic common sense as defined by me, the media played a society-maintenance role as paramount over the rote-defined information and analysis role.
The Independent story on the election results coverage quotes one Tom Rhodes from the watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists who said,
“While it is commendable that the Kenyan media is taking precautions this time around to ensure not to incite any violence through sensational reporting, many local journalists that I have spoken to express their frustrations over their editors who cull their stories in the name of maintaining peace.”
Obviously, he is one of those whose knowledge of things is stuck in a paradigm that will not accommodate the situation Kenya was in.
The actions of the media in Kenya this week are much the same as the US media embedding itself with troops during the Iraq II war and ensuring that their coverage did not jeopardise the ‘war on terror’.
I am all for media freedom within responsibility, and I applaud the Kenyan media for defining this for the world, much to the chagrin of many international observers. If they had been weaker in their love for compatriot and nation, some would have broken rank and delved into the troughs (not trenches) of sensationalism that would have jeopardised the war on terror that we suffered in 2007-8 right here at home.