George W. Gathigi
Lecturer, University of Nairobi
The media has been a critical part of the Kenyan election process. But did they do a good job?
I spoke to a variety of sources including journalists, commentators and experts and a number of issues came out. Overall, the insights they gave me suggest that the mainstream media’s coverage of the 2017 general election can best be described as a mixed bag. While it played a very important role, it still has a way to go in terms of the factual, unbiased and objective coverage of elections.
During the election process the media remained at the forefront of presenting different opinions – leading newspapers, television and radio stations all presented different views, and carried opinions from political figures across the spectrum.
But one criticism that came through was that sections of radio, especially local language stations, were very often parochial. Some played extremely partisan politics that was more aligned to local audiences than to national interests.
Another criticism expressed by many of the people I spoke to was that they felt the mainstream media had been lazy in its coverage of competing candidates. The largest media outlets constantly amplified the political binary represented by the two main coalitions, the National Super Alliance (NASA) and the Jubilee Party (JP). There was limited coverage outside the two coalitions with other parties and candidates receiving little airtime.
Preaching the peace
The Kenyan media has struggled with the burden of being accused of fuelling post-election violence in 2007 and 2008. For example it was accused of failing to moderate hate messages and of passing on messages that incited violence. TV stations were accused of showing violent messages that led to retaliation between members of different communities.
Given these experiences, this time round the media was at pains to emphasize messages of peace throughout the electioneering period. It also showed restraint and self-censorship in terms of the information and images it presented.
This was evident if you compared coverage provided by the international media with the Kenyan media. While international media has alluded to imminent violence and showed images of isolated instances – before and after the polls closed – the Kenyan media has been more careful.
Journalists played a critical role in negotiating political and electoral discourse. But the people I spoke to called into question the professionalism of some of the members of the press.
Some people felt that adherence to the principles of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality was wanting. There are examples of journalists perceived to be partisan for example Kameme FM broadcasters, some KTN and Citizen anchors and reporters. And that some journalists, including well known television anchors, revealed their political biases by seeming to favor specific candidates and parties.
Another issue that was raised was that some journalists blurred the lines between the personal and the professional. This was especially problematic on social media platforms. The impartiality expected of journalists was viewed as compromised when they openly expressed their political preferences.
The elections also come with a range of issues which demanded various levels of inquiry and analysis. The knowledge of many journalists didn’t always match these demands. At times coverage was shallow and not critically engaging.
In addition, while media houses called on dozens of “experts” and “analysts”, many couldn’t make contributions that justified their titles. Television stations paraded what they called “eminent” and “super” panels to little effect. Beyond being large in size, the panels were often thin when it came to substance.
One big gap was that mainstream media didn’t feature many women. ‘Manels’ (men-only panels) dominated television broadcasts and fewer women were used as news sources and on-air analysts. Women politicians also received significantly less coverage – and far more critical coverage – than their male counterparts.
The highs and lows
Compared with previous elections there was been an improvement in live coverage, immediacy, and updates on the campaigns, as well as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s preparations. Media houses also followed the various legal challenges relating to the 2017 elections very closely.
There were also genuine attempts to encourage issue-based debating platforms and to give different contestants opportunities to argue their positions and engage with the electorate.
Media houses also deployed more resources than ever before to cover campaigns in various parts of the country. The rise of fact-checking was also a notable development.
Some of the low moments included the presidential debates that didn’t go as planned. This denied voters the opportunity to fully engage with the candidates. Nevertheless, the media must be commended for organizing them.
There were also times when the mainstream media was seen to compete with bloggers to break news. The rush to publish meant that allegations and challenges weren’t verified and that assertions by politicians weren’t checked first.
There were also examples of journalists being sluggish in setting the agenda. For example, there was a general lack of inquiry into campaign financing, the use of state resources for campaigns and the conduct of party primaries.
Evolving role of social media
The role of traditional media in election coverage has come under pressure for two reasons.
The first is the emergence of digital platforms that allow political and election discourse, combined with the rise of citizen journalism. This means that the mainstream media is now just one of many news sources.
The second is that traditional media houses are under increasing financial pressure. Many have cut costs by letting experienced journalists go, in turn affecting the quality of media coverage.
But when all is said and done, the mainstream media continues to play a critical role in educating and informing the populace. The increased number of media outlets, especially local language radio and television stations, has ensured broader access to election information.
The mainstream media continues to provide a platform where the people can exchange ideas and engage with their leaders. The integration of multiple platforms including print, broadcast and digital has allowed broader interaction with audiences such that the media both speaks and listens.