Friday, April 26, 2013

Coming Home To Roost

Earlier this week, I was invited to participate in a discussion on the media coverage of the recent election. It was quite an interesting and informative engagement with opinion seemingly split broadly into two groups: those like me who think the press was induced into a "peace coma," and ignored fundamental and widespread problems witnessed during the poll; and others who, though admitting that the reporting may not have scaled the heights of journalistic achievement, believed that the call for peace and cautious stance contributed to a remarkably peaceful and violence-free election.

Whilst we were debating all this, the Uhuru government launched its security operation in Garissa. In less than a week, two people were dead, hundreds had been arrested and many more had fled the town in terror of an operation the Daily Nation calls "an anti-terror crackdown". Those nabbed included at least 7 recently elected county representatives. 80 people were arraigned in court but none for any links to the recent spate of attacks in the city, the justification for the operation. In fact 75 of those were in court for the apparently horrendous crime of not applying for an ID. Meaning they were Kenyan citizens. Meaning the police knew that they were Kenyan citizens.

The more one looks into it, the more it seems that the operation is targeting ordinary citizens, specifically ethnic Somalis, and inspiring the very terror it is meant to quash. It looks like collective punishment. So why isn't the media replete with howls of indignation and outrage? Why, despite being offered multiple opportunities to question the President this week, not a single journalist raise the issue?

Heard about the rape epidemic in the poorer areas of Nairobi? The violence visited daily on the poor? No one asked President Kenyatta about that either.

And, to be fair, it is not only the media. Where is our civil society? Where are the voices of our eloquent defenders of human rights and constitutional limits on the arbitrary exercise of power? They are also conspicuous by their absence.

I think we are seeing the consequences of trends that we encouraged or ignored during the last election cycle. When we kept quiet about the denigration and delegitimizing of civil society by their traditional enemies, the political class. When we ignored the lobotomising of the news and encouraged our journalists to be performers and entertainers rather than newsmen. When we allowed them to privilege the voices of the rich and powerful, and their narratives of economic development, and refused to hear those of the poor and displaced. When we turned a blind eye to malfeasance in the name of peace and accepted the wisdom that the only alternative to a poorly run election is chaos, not a better run one. When we shouted from the rooftops about a new constitution and devolved government but only whispered about the Bill of Rights. When we pooh-poohed justice and celebrated mediocrity.

Today, it is citizens in places like Garissa and the slums of Nairobi who are paying the price. There's perhaps a false comfort in the idea that it doesn't really matter because we had already, through years of abuse and neglect, relegated them to second class citizens existing on the margins of society. This, we think, could not happen to us, in our stone houses with three square meals, an internet connection and a car outside.

Well, what's to stop it? Remember it was a coalition of media and civil society (including churches) that forced reform on the government. Today, all these are facing a crisis of confidence and legitimacy.

Institutions do not only exist in government. And, in fact, it is those institutions outside the government -primarily the the press and organised civil society- that are the most important check on government excess. When we allow them to be hollowed out and undermined, we all ultimately suffer the consequences.

We must beware when what passes for news is a regurgitation of government propaganda. We should be afraid when we let the government dictate the agenda and when our journalists are more interested in the President's wardrobe than they are in his closet. That, my friends, is not the path to peace.


Anonymous said...

Freakin awesome article.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Though substantially in agreement with your analysis, I disagree to a point regarding your observation about the media's role during the elections.

The media's role in fanning the post-election violence that occurred after the 2007 general election has largely been acknowledged and, for this reason, it was inevitable that their coverage during the just concluded election would pursue a more cautious path; one that veered away from inflaming any ethnic animosity. Based on the vicious violence witnessed in 2007/8 it would be natural for any organisation commanding significant influence, such as the media, to sanction any news deemed to run the risk of inciting ethnic tensions. Examination of past behaviour amongst the Kenyan electorate during election time shows that we need very little instigation before we resort to violence. This year's election was already fraught with tension as the two main protagonists (seen to be representing their respective ethnic groups) faced off in a perceived do-or-die competition. Recognising the high stakes in play, the media opted for caution over the citizen's right to information. Did the citizen's right to critical information suffer in the process? Of course, it did. That is the price we had to pay to ensure that we did not resort to hacking and burning each other to death again. Was it too steep a price to pay? Depends on which side of the divide you're standing on. For the Kikuyu trader doing business in Western Kenya, or the Luo artisan practising his craft in Central Kenya, it was a price that they would probably gladly pay; especially if they had witnessed or suffered some loss during the previous outbreak of violence. For the proponent of democratic and civil rights, it was probably too high a price to pay. For me, it was preferable to lose some of my rights than to contemplate the loss of life of a fellow citizen. The right to life must supersede all other rights. I had also interacted with too many victims of the 2007/8 PEV over the preceding 5yrs to realise that the person at greatest risk of losing life and/or property when violence breaks out would prefer peace at all costs.

We need to recognise that the country was going through a very fragile time during the just concluded election and we had to ensure that the thin veneer of peace did not break. No one wanted to consider the alternative, as we had come so close to losing it all in 2007/8. The role played by the media during the last elections will be debated for some time to come, but I think we can all agree that they erred. I'm just glad that they erred on the side of caution.

We're past the critical moment, though, and I agree that the media now needs to go back to its watchdog role by not shying away from asking the hard questions, including putting IEBC to task over its questionable performance.

Gathara said...

@thebrooder What I wish us to question is the assumption that the alternative to accepting the results of a poorly run election is chaos. Why is the choice not a bad election vs a good one?
I think we were too easily scared and stampeded into tribal manyattas. Why, when the 1992 or 1997 elections were similarly questioned, did we not take to hacking each other? What has changed?
It is not the asking of questions that endangers the peace. It is the non-asking. It is when we ignore history and the disaffection people feel when they feel forced to adopt narratives that do no reflect their experience.
It is when we ignore injustice that we plant the seeds of that disaffection and of future violence.

Anonymous said...

Do you have an idea of what Wagalla was? from your bio below, you admin you were not a good student hence missed an opportunity to study modern history, because once you do, you would not want to compare Wagalla and the Garissa operations. Thank you

Gathara said...

@Anon (7:46 PM),
I may be a poor student but you show yourself to be a poor reader. I have not once mentioned Wagalla in my article.
However, it is good of you to bring it up as it well illustrates the history of the cover up of crimes committed by our security forces in the NEP.

Ciiku said...

I totally agree that the current civil society lacks "confidence and legitimacy".

I think we need to require more from our media in terms of content. While watching Al Jazeera, I saw they had a legal expert (etc) and he was tasked with interpreting legal issues. Instead of media houses calling in this propaganda "analysts" why don't they invest on experts?

We are really absurdistan and here is my example:
This weekend, two news pieces were done: One on a cat and another on young sex workers - which one got more attention? Yep... the cat.