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Political advertising is just one form of manipulation through media

It is critical that the government recruits experts to discern information broadcasted by the mushrooming vernacular stations

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Kenyans watch national television in Nairobi, as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, addresses the nation. There is need to interrogate the subliminal messages that are broadcast or published using covert manipulative strategies.

It is the political season in Kenya. This five-year cycle comes with its fair share of shenanigans, not to mention the usual tension due to heightened political temperatures. But somehow we manage. It is only during the controversial 2007 General Election that the nation actually stood on the precipice due to the subsequent deadly violence that led to over 1,000 deaths.

Now, whether we learnt our lessons or not is still a matter of conjecture. However, our politicians are still wont to make inflammatory statements that border on treason. Luckily, citizens are maturing faster politically than their leaders. People seem to be gradually internalizing the fact that their lives are not worth putting on the line for the eventual selfish interests of an individual.

Various reports produced by various players in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 post-election violence, including The Independent Review Commission by South Africa Justice Johann Kriegler and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, pointed at the media as one of the igniting factors of the clashes. That is how Joshua arap Sang, then working as a KASS FM presenter, ended up at the International Criminal Court at The Hague as one of the top six culprits. He was accused of using coded vernacular to direct organized goons to their victims in the then Rift Valley Province.

This necessitated the government, through the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), to come up with a code of ethics aimed at regulating political advertising in both print and electronic media. The MCK Guidelines for Election Coverage (March 2017), which was compiled and revised by a team of local media practitioners, contains a raft of 21 rules for those planning to use the media to formally propagate their political ideologies.

Representatives of mainstream media houses signed the document committing themselves to the guidelines as appertains to rights and responsibilities, harm and offence, content and formats, and implementation. Newspapers went further to customize the guidelines and are now publishing them regularly as a guide to purveyors of political messages. Of course, electronic media stations are also following the same rules.

This is quite a noble initiative. Basically, the guidelines are based on taste, decency, professionalism, and the whole ethical sphere. It is about taking care of the small things that can escalate and blow out of proportion, and their meaning and objectives abused or misconstrued.

But for the political advertising guidelines to be effective, they must be girded by strong journalism ethics. Students of media and public relations will tell you that editorials and placement are more lethal than paid for advertisements or infomercials. A nuanced news item can have more impact than a direct message, as the former is seen as more credible due to the implication it is devoid of any commercial considerations.

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Journalism has the ability to pass subtle messages through the use of imagery and idioms. This is more pronounced in vernacular media, especially radio and TV. It is, therefore, critical that the government recruits experts to discern commentaries and news items broadcasted by the mushrooming vernacular stations.

Already, there are a couple of international development partners who have started programs to monitor and analyse political content being published and broadcasted in our media houses. Although there are no official results released yet from these programs, indications are that some media houses are, either deliberately or inadvertently, carrying hate speech in their programming during this electoral period.

People who plan to create and spread chaos will always target the mass audience for indoctrination. Look at countries where genocide has taken place. In Germany, for example, Fuhrer Adolf Hitler was adept at demagoguery, which passed on to the people as factual information on the reasons of their poor plight. When he started the pogroms against the Jews, the German society simply cheered him on.

Maize flour ad has negative meaning

May be I am also reading too much into some electronic media commercials, which I find tinged with political messages. It simply sounds as our normal ethnic stereotyping, characterized by our lingual and behavioural idiosyncrasies. One of these is a TV commercial advertising a brand of maize meal. Its two protagonists come from Rift Valley and Western provinces.

The message revolves around the selfishness of the Western gentleman, who lies to his friend from the Rift (a neighbouring province), that he is not in his house during lunch time so that he does not share his big mound of ugali. The ad implies that the former is mean and a liar. There are different ways you could read this ad politically, none of them positive.

Therefore, political advertising is not as overt as it appears. There is need to interrogate the subliminal messages that are broadcast or published using covert manipulative strategies. Media authorities need to employ the services of psychologists to bring out such messaging in various media channels.

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Stephen Ndegwa is an experienced media practitioner specializing in thought leadership. He has written for various media houses and publications, both locally and abroad. Ndegwa is also a strategic communication expert, with skills across the public relations and marketing mix. He is an author, blogger, poet and university lecturer in communication. Email: [email protected] FB: Stephen Ndegwa Twitter: @Ndegwasm

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