Kenyans did well to reject the pessimistic coverage of their elections by the foreign press, but LSE’s Nicholas Benequista argues that the Kenyan national media also had its failings.
The national elections last week revealed an uneasy relationship between Kenyans and the mass media. Kenyans have been given an unsatisfactory choice between the half-truths of the foreign press and the illusions of their own national media.
On the surface, Kenyans appear to have rejected the half-truths common in foreign reports which say that the country’s tribal politics have strewn hatred and prejudice among its citizens; instead they have embraced the illusion, more common among the national media, that the tragic violence that followed the 2007 elections has taught people that they share more in common with each other than they do with their leaders.
But the illusion comes at a high cost. Even those who publicly praised the Kenyan media’s overtures to unity will privately confess that they harbour concerns, particularly about the national media’s self-censorship. In the fear of telling dangerous half-truths, an extreme relativism – that all truths are equal – has been permitted.
Still, the solution isn’t merely in the fit: a version of Western investigative journalism, but without all the Western prejudices. Kenya is actually quite fortunate, in a way, because in this awkward encounter of foreign media, national media and new media, it seems clear that something quite unique is needed, and, indeed, possible. Kenyan journalism can set a new, better standard.
Election coverage in Kenya last week gave us a glimpse of that possibility.
Mass media is where we go when we are at our most anxious, where we go to be together and to find comfort in our togetherness. And while the foreign press is no place to gather for Kenyans (not to say that it hasn’t been for others, as in the Arab Spring), the national media have been.
The 24-hour television coverage often featured a panel of guests providing running commentary throughout the week as the parties rallied, people queued and finally as the problematic tallying process dragged on. These commentators did little to help us to determine the truthfulness of statements, including claims of vote-rigging by Raila Odinga’s coalition party, but they did provide background, history and context. They echoed our own anxieties, questions and thoughts and allowed us to imagine the many others across the country who were, like us, hoping for peace – whatever the outcome. Their conversation was an extension of ours at home or in the bar. This effect was especially powerful for those who were simultaneously in conversation on Twitter, which is increasingly fused with English-language television in Kenya.
Accolades for the national media came in a flood on Twitter, just as the mockery and the derision of the foreign press had come earlier in the week.
Kenyans are right to choose unity over division. But this is an illusion because it fails to recognize the vastly different ways that people have understood this national event, and not just whether the elections were credible, though that too is important. The media scholar Roger Silverstone (who was influenced strongly by Hannah Arendt’s philosophy – itself influenced by the Holocaust) had this to say about such illusions.
“And illusions, of course, though they have their costs, can be massively sustaining. The illusion of connection is grounded in the refusal of otherness. It is based on the private masquerading as the public, the separate masquerading as the shared, the different masquerading as the same, the distant masquerading as the close-at-hand, the unequal masquerading as the equal. In all these dimensions the masquerade is profound in its ethical consequences.”
All this to say that the aim to counterbalance the grim reports from the foreign media is misguided. Kenya’s national media narrative should not be reactionary; it is not a counterbalance. It should serve national needs, regardless of what the foreign press is saying.
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. 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.
Peace journalism, civic journalism, development journalism: there have been many names given to designate a form of journalism with higher aspirations, though few good examples. The Kenyan media has demonstrated the will and responsibility needed to demonstrate that this long-standing hope is no illusion.
Nicholas Benequista is a former journalist and now a PhD researcher at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications. He is currently conducting an action research project in Kenya to explore the very possibilities he discusses here. You can follow the project on www.networkednews.org. Follow Nicholas on Twitter @benequista.
This is one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read thus far about the media coverage of the kenyan elections. Very well said. Bravo
Clearly you were not in Kenya in 2007/08 when the media hyped emotions and 1500 people died. We prefer our peace in whatever form it comes…
Good piece on the importance of background information and good reporting.
I also agree with @Olez that you rather take a tame press than a killer outside your door demanding you to reveal your identity. I was in Kenya in 2008 and was pleasantly surprised by the free and fierce press demanding accountability and justice. I especially remember the discussion about the Annan’s mediation, the “white envelope” and the cowardice of the Kenyan courts to bring the perpetrators to justice which then provoked the ICC to step in.
Michaela Wrong has written an insightful piece regarding the consequences of this self-censorship of the press. The other side of Nicholas Benequista’s argument I’d say.
A lot of interesting language. Kenyan media is largely controlled (90%) by people strongly affiliated by ethnic or business ties to Uhuru and his sponsors or supporters. Their one primary objective was to ensure his mission to be president did not fail and therefore did not want to even slightly rock the boat.
All those “peace” messages were a political ruse to cover up and mollify or even brainwash the citizens to accept a pre-determined outcome that had already been done before the actual election.
Academic probing of these events can only yield academic results, truth on the ground is much more intriguing as it is mysterious
The media did a good job to avert any flare ups like in 2008. It is one thing to allude rigging and another to undermine every institution and individual trying to have a credible election. Statements by political parties during that period were irresponsible at times and the media did a good job of shepherding the country through what was a tense time. It was not a perfect election yes, but some elements were hell bent on making it look like we had the same crisis as 2008.
As for the above comment it is interesting that you say Uhuru’s sponsors own 90% of the media, because even if they do the real big media is owned and run by Raila sympathisers. You only need to open the newspaper day in and day out and see that. Royal Media Services which is arguably the biggest and most watched TV station in Kenya besides KBC is owned by CORD’s chief media officer SK Macharia, as for Daily Nation it is a well known fact that the Editorial team is consisted of mostly supporters of Raila. As for a pre-determined outcome that was not proved in court.
Those so called “peace” messages were on the ground and been spoken on the ground. They may not have healed wounds, but they contributed to a “ceasefire” which allowed Kenya to transition. I believe that the bravest Kenyans are those who supported Raila and did not get what they desired, but chose to move forward and chose harmony over chaos.