With the upcoming elections in Kenya, now less than a week away, many people in the region and indeed the world are watching, waiting with bated breath. Many pundits are predicting violence akin to that of the fiasco of the 2007-2008 Post-election Violence (PEV). The purpose of this short post is two-fold: Firstly, I wanted to write a brief, precautionary tale based on my own experiences of the 2007-08 PEV and perhaps convey a lesson that we have hopefully learned. Secondly, this is a very intentional “shot across the bow” of a small but extremely influential group of people whose careers have benefited massively from the last PEV. I am not talking about the politicians this time. Rather, I am speaking directly to the international journalists who will cover the current Kenyan exercise.
Kenya has long been a very key strategic ally for many European and North American countries. This is clearly nothing new and I won’t drag on about this in this space, save to say, it is quite natural, and extremely mutually beneficial that the relationship between Kenya and many external countries, continues, uninterrupted by the passing politics of the day. That in itself is why the world is watching and why high-profile stringers from every major media outlet are also standing by, as self-proclaimed experts, to give their take on the current political climate.
Interestingly, Kenya’s leaders have been warned repeatedly, including by everyone from Obama to Ban Ki Moon, to choose peace, and renounce violence. Ominously, some envoys have even warned that if presidential aspirants Uhuru and Ruto are voted into the presidency, there will be consequences for Kenya’s international standing, based on their current indictments by the International Criminal Court. This is expected and warranted.
The International Crisis Group has urged CSOs, the private sector, religious bodies etc. to preach peace, encouraging them to take very public stances against violence. This is excellent and a commendable position. Kenyans have responded to this and many people have taken very public stances indeed, culminating in a public commitment by the aspirants themselves to condemn violence associated with the polls.
But one thing has remained under-emphasized and that is the implicit and critical role of the media in this equation. And by media, I am referring mostly to the international media outlets and their stringers in Kenya.
In 2007 and 2008, I was living in between Naivasha and Nairobi. Parts of each of these urban areas were considered among the most highly impacted of the political violence. During the entire spate of violence, I spent my time, as did millions of other Kenyans, attempting to proceed with life, work, and love. In fact, the vast majority of Kenyans did proceed with life as normal because the violence was restricted to a relatively small area (less than a fraction of a percentile of Kenya’s total area). I am not saying this to minimize the impact of the violence on individuals and some communities. I was a first – hand witness to several events, roadblocks etc. during this time. The violence was intense, ugly and nefarious. However, it was spatially bounded, in explicit pockets, not uniform across the country. Moreover, it is the headlines from the international media that stuck with me the most: Kenyan Crisis Worsens… Scores dead in Kenya poll clashes…Disputed Vote Plunges Kenya Into Bloodshed. While these headlines and the subsequent media coverage, are not (spatially-speaking), inaccurate in that they were occurring within Kenya’s international boundaries, they are grossly misleading and sometimes even ridiculously speculative. The fact is that Kenya, as a whole country, was not burning, not descending into bloodshed and chaos, not “blowing up in a cloud of widespread ethnic cleansing akin to Rwanda’s famous violence” as one reporter once told me. There were pockets of intense violence and suffering as I have stated above. These have left some deep scars on Kenya’s reputation and society. However, Kenya, as a whole was still functioning, with most Kenyans still pursuing life, and livelihoods despite chaos in pockets.
Then came the travel bans and the associated paranoia of the international organizations. The travel bans urged people to avoid Kenya completely. Never ever having been a target, many of the personnel that were evacuated from Kenya during this time, did so on the basis of the inaccurate media reporting that they were constantly being fed, creating an image and feeling that they themselves would somehow be targeted. This was wholly inaccurate and not based on any verifiable fact. Unfortunately, the media did nothing to educate the wider audience that the violence was not engulfing every enclave of Kenya. The often-cited reason for not being more spatially explicit and specific about place names is that journalists do not feel their audiences will know where places like Kibera are. However, the role of a journalist is also the role of an educator, assisting audiences to be more informed about our world. Surely, not everyone knew where Bhopal, Hiroshima or Sandy Hook were when those stories came to light? We do know now, but surely we aren’t claiming that India is completely toxic, Japan radioactive or the entire US is at risk of being shot? Educating, not playing into our stereotypes, is one of the most important roles of media. Education about the spatial boundaries of the violence was only ever partially or inaccurately communicated to the audience and a lack of intensive scrutiny meant that journalists simply got away with it. Imagine if Boston evacuated because of the school shootings in Connecticut? Imagine if every time a murder happened in Houston, people cancelled their business trips to Chicago?
The impact of inaccurate, imprecise reporting was felt most gruesomely in the tourism sector where cancellations, based on the international media’s claims that Kenya was burning, nearly collapsed the tourism market. The Kenya Tourist Board estimate that 200,000 Kenyans are directly involved in the tourism industry and with an average family size of six, many millions more Kenyans depend directly on tourism revenues, not to mention the associated support industries. During the 2007-2008 PEV, tourism numbers dropped catastrophically, with cancellations hitting an all-time high. The sector showed -45% growth compared to an annual average of 9.8% growth in visitor numbers before the PEV. The economic impact was felt across all sectors of the country and with tourism as the second largest foreign income earner in the economy, GDP tumbled.
These impacts are directly attributable to international media reporting characterizing Kenya as a country descending into hell, a characterization which was grossly misleading. I posit here that more Kenyans were negatively impacted by the inaccurate and exaggerated international media coverage, than were ever affected by the violence directly.
You may be asking yourself why I am seemingly going after a free and fair press that gives a window in to the dark alleyways of Kenya’s politic process. Here is the reasoning: In all of the warnings and counter-warnings towards Kenya’s political elite, the religious leaders, civil society organizations etc., in the run-up to this current election, the media itself has never been warned to ensure that their stories are accurate and an appropriate appraisal of the actual facts. Other independent analysts, including many of Kenya’s own political scientists are also noticing this and the message needs to be circulated. My message to the international media is that they have a duty to ensure that the scope of their reporting is accurate to the time, the place and the extent of the impacts. Exaggeration and misleading, speculative headlines are not the hallmark of the noble profession of journalism. Secondly, I encourage any one of my readers to get the verifiable facts, scrutinize the sound bites and news flashes you are hearing and if all else fails, call a Kenyan in Kenya and get an appraisal. The calling rates have never been cheaper. Or, as Uhuru believes, you can even use Skype.
In short, this is not a call for a boycott of the international media, nor is it an attack on the principles of a free-press. We all hope for a peaceful election process throughout Kenya. Indeed, the world needs Kenya, and Kenya needs the world. However, I urge the international media to report that process accurately, fairly, and with relevant, verifiable facts. I also ask international media outlets to refrain from speculation and drawing inaccurate, unfair conclusions lest they hurt more Kenyans than political violence ever could. It is not only up to us to choose peace during this election; it is also up to us to make sure that that peace is reflected accurately.