The period between October 7, 2014 and October 10, 2014 must have been the most disappointing for attentive consumers of Kenyan media. During this period, media chose to abandon their leadership positions, and decided to act in a drama written, produced and directed by the ruling elite. Their decision to become marionettes on the strings of State House puppeteers saw them package melodramatic events and present them as “news”.
As you may recall, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had summoned President Uhuru Kenyatta to appear before it for a status conference on October 8, 2014. The president decided to obey the ICC, but had cleverly resolved to exploit the situation to refurbish the hitherto flagging political fortunes of his Jubilee Coalition. The coalition was receiving quite a beating from the Okoa Kenya and Pesa Mashinani referendum initiatives. The media were going to be a central peg in this grand propaganda design. Not quite uncharacteristically, media swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
One is not sure whether to blame it on naivety, lack of journalistic philosophy or a deliberate decision to be of service to the ruling elite, but media’s coverage of the events leading to and after the president’s date with ICC was disastrous. Media committed the cardinal journalistic sin of presenting propaganda as hot news. For four days, newspapers dedicated acres and acres of space to non-issues, as TV anchors and reporters made fools of themselves before cameras as they tried to embellish what was clearly valueless information.
For instance, anyone with basic knowledge of the Constitution – leave alone journalists whose knowledge of the document is expected to be above average – knows that when the president is out of the country, his deputy takes charge. But on October 7 and 8, media decided to adopt the president’s propaganda script and made such a spectacle out of the mere fact that the president had temporarily handed over power to the deputy before he travelled to the Hague to attend to a “personal challenge”.
So while the journalistic story should have actually revolved around the criminal case facing the president at ICC, media played the propaganda so well to the extent that it ended up being the big story, while in fact, it was a side story. The media were to continue with this heat-minus-light style of reporting in their coverage of the actual status conference. True, they recorded and relayed the court proceedings; but what actually stole the show were the histrionics of the Kenyans who had accompanied the president, with the juvenile antics of Nairobi Senator, Gideon Mbuvi alias Mike Sonko, forming a significant percentage of the news corpus from The Hague.
Watching respected reporters present this madness from the streets of The Hague was as entertaining as watching a comedy show. So, a solemn matter in which a prominent personality was appearing before a court where he faces the most grievous criminal charges was reduced to a stand-up comedy show. The less said about the coverage of the president’s “home-coming’ road show, the better. It is upon media houses to tell what they achieved by expending huge resources on this.
CORE MEDIA RESPONSIBILITIES
Let’s pause and think about the principal responsibilities of professional news media. First the job of the news media is not merely to tell people what is happening. Actually one need not be a journalist to pass over facts to an audience. What distinguishes true journalism from other forms of mass communication is commitment to truthfulness. This implies judging what facts need to be brought to the attention of the public so that the public can see through appearances to the real issues and motives that lie behind them. The media should have been truthful and should have seized the opportunity to revisit the history behind the Hague trials.
Why was there little, in any focus on victims of the post- election violence at what was described as a critical stage in the trial? Clearly, to do this required enterprise on the part of the editors. But either there is dearth of enterprising editors and journalists or enterprise is not encouraged for political and commercial reasons. An enterprising editor or reporter takes the initiative on a story and goes beyond and deeper than what is obvious.
By choosing to focus on the dramatics, media wasted an opportunity to emphasize the significance, importance, or consequence not just of the Hague trials, but also of political violence. They lost an opportunity to teach and caution against this primitive happening. This does not imply, of course, that the accused is guilty. In fact, media made the post-election violence, the basis of the trials, look like something that happened so long ago and which a society that has “moved on” need not bother about.
The coverage centered on the prominence of the individual involved – a president – with a subtle implication that the status conference (and indeed the whole ICC trial) was an irritating disruption of the work of a big, man, who also happens to have a huge number of “mafans”. The case was made to look like some distant affair, in some cold, foreign land. The reporters, clad in warm clothes, reported in a style and manner which suggested that the matter was so removed from the audience that the audience really needed not bother that much.
Yet the case is a result of the events that affected, indeed continue to affect, all Kenyans. No serious editor or reporter can deny the PEV’s currency. To deflect attention from the real conflict in the story, there were clever attempts to introduce “play-within-a play” act, or sideshows such as the foolishness displayed outside the court by Sonko and his minions. The clash between Sonko and security officials provided good TV footage for the unsuspecting photojournalists.
No doubt the whole “misreporting” of the status conference was as a result of the clever work of highly sophisticated doctors of the spin and public relations practitioners who created “subsidised” news that took the place of the real news. And either because of laziness or good old-fashioned connivance, media played along. The avalanche of media reports on the President Kenyatta’s appearance at the ICC chambers (or more precisely, the sideshows) came exactly three months after media gave a blackout on live coverage of the CORD’s Saba Saba rally on July 7.
This could lead to conclusions that media are now at the beck and call of the ruling coalition. Media seem to have capitulated to Jubilee’s coercive tactics and are now eager to please the powerful ruling politicians.
David Matende, a former KUJ chairman, is a media consultant based in Nairobi. This article appears in the November 2014 issue of The Nairobi Law Monthly.