Playing watchdog vs keeping the peace: the media is put on trial.

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media focus on africa

Everybody seems to be asking what happened to the media during the elections. It seems the media was so busy keeping the peace that they forget their watchdog role.

Yesterday I attended a discussion, actually I was a panelist at a Kenya Media Roundtable organized by Media Focus on Africa. The topic was the media. Playing watchdog vs keeping the peace: a necessary trade off. Did self censorship by the media go too far during the March 4th 2013 election? The other panelists were Linus Kaikai of NTV Kenya and Prof Kimani Wanjogu of Twaweza Communications.

media trial

I said that I believe the media took up a role that was abdicated by the government. After or during the violence of 2007/2008 two parties went into negotiation to end the violence. Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki’s people had talks at Serena. Eventually they signed an MOU to share power. Then like magic the country went back to normal. But did it? I believe the issues were swept under the rug. The violence was not addressed, the reasons were not really discussed, and the parties were not made to seat down and talk, air out their grievances. So we pretended that everything was alright but it wasn’t.

That’s why almost everybody didn’t want to go to work after the election of March 4th. They were expecting violence. They expected that something would happen when the election results were released. We had the media, government and stakeholders (companies) asking people to go back to work. But people were scared, they didn’t know if something would happen when results were released. International organizations even made plans for their staff just in case there was violence. Employees were given food rations and for some emergency travel plans were put into place. Some staff were even advised to leave the country. Some people went to neighboring countries to view the elections from a safe distance. So clearly it wasn’t just the locals panicking.

Anyway the government did not carry out the role as a reconciler of communities. Government went on business as usual, left the pieces to fall as they may. So the media, feeling guilty after its alleged role in the violence of 2007/2008 decided to be the peacemaker. The media was accused of fanning the fires of violence by showing images that incited people to violence or having broadcasts that encouraged violence (the Sang case). The media did not want to have the stigma that they encouraged violence through their reporting.

Personally I liked what the role that the media took in keeping the peace. I believe it was important. I am 100% behind the media on that. The only problem is that history may not judge it so. History sometimes takes things out of the context in which an issue occurred. After the fact people are asking about why the media did not report on the irregularities that they witnessed.

Ms. Tikolo from the Public Relations Society asked a question. The question was about the BVR kits. Apparently a week before the elections the media were invited to a demonstration of the workings of the BVR kits. 4 out of 5 gadgets didn’t work. Why didn’t they report it and say that they weren’t working? That’s a good question. Maybe it would have made us not to put too much trust in the electronics systems for the elections. Then when they failed maybe we wouldn’t have been so tense or start making up conspiracy theories.

Linus Kaikai talked about the delicate context of this election. This was a burden that weighed heavily on stakeholders. Linus said that maybe the media was over cautious. He also admitted that maybe the media naively trusted the IEBC. That they thought after the last elections no one would be willing to do the same things again and based on the IEBC carrying out the referendum credibly there would be no issues. Linus said that the media missed an opportunity. When they recognised that things were not going the way they were supposed to, they should have done things different. There was a light moment when Linus talked about the only other time journalists have not asked questions was when President Mwai Kibaki had a press conference to announce that he has one wife. Afterwards Lucy Kibaki asked if there were any questions and no one dared to ask a question.

The IEBC did not deliver on the trust given to them by both the media and public. I think most of us naively trusted the IEBC to do the right thing. Whether they did or not is a question for the courts to answer.

Prof Kimani Wanjogu of Twaweza Communications talked about looking at the media not just in the context of the election but in the context of the past, that is from 2007/2008 to now. He said that sometimes the watchdog role is suspended because of the greater good, which in this case was the peacekeeping role. People, Prof Kimani said, wanted the media to be responsible during the tallying period. He sees the media’s role in this election as being one of saving the situation. He said that the media was trying to maintain fragile peace. We need to aim for sustainable peace, where there is justice and truth. Fragile peace operates in an area where justice and truth do not operate.

In discussions with the audience many felt that the media had gone to bed with the state. That they abdicated their role of being a watchdog. Linus says the media was not compromised. The media also did their own independent tallying so they have figures but this information was not released to the public. Linus talked again about trusting the IEBC – that the media trusted that the IEBC would have the presence of mind to not do things the same way as in 2007. Clearly he says, our trust was misplaced. One of the consequences of that trust is that they did not put agents at all polling stations.

Alex Gakuru of Creative Commons said that we should not look at the media in terms of covering an event which was the elections but interrogate the media as covering a series of events. He said that though people may not know it, many journalists were traumatized after the last elections and what they saw. They even had to go for counselling. The media in that context did not want a repeat of the same violence, and so they erred on the side of caution because of what they had seen. In his opinion the media behaved very professionally and the industry has grown in its professionalism.

Good questions were asked by Dr. Mshai Mwangola who talked about peace and truth going together. She asked what happens when the media abdicates its role? And in the context of this election and the media, how do people make decisions when faced with a bad situation?

Clay Muganda in an article in today’s Daily Nation talks about how the media is being quizzed about their role. He says that “some government body, National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring, through its committee secretary Mary Ombara, went on record that mainstream media failed to report on events it noticed were amiss at different polling centres across the country because it wanted to propagate peace. “Journalists appeared to have been scared, she said, and the media “took the peace messages too far and moved from one extreme of being impartial observers” and “became players”.

truth on trial

The questions the media are being asked are hard questions:

Why did you trust the IEBC?
Why did you not carry out your investigative role?
Why did you not ask the hard questions until after the elections?
This debate is not over. It will go on. I believe that the media did their best in their role of a peace keeper. But they failed in their role as a watchdog for the people. In the end the questions will be in this context, did the media do what they did for the greater good? And what lessons can we learn from this situation going forward?

PS.

To find out more about about Media Focus on Africa click on this link.

Added links to videos from the session

My contribution
Linus Kaikai talks about what happened.
Prof. Kimani Njogu’s contribution.

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