On the eve of Madarka Day, CNN’s Robyn Kriel dropped bombshell. Her investigations had revealed that the Kenya government was engaged in covering up the truth surrounding the deaths of at least 141 Kenyan troops in El Adde, Somalia. The story made headlines around the world. However, here, where it should have mattered most, it was mostly ignored by the local press.
Why? In January when the slaughter happened, it was on the front page of every newspaper. But soon thereafter, it became clear that the media was being careful not to raise too many uncomfortable questions. Over the course of the last 6 months, even as further revelations, including Al Shabaab’s release of footage of the attack, showed gaping holes in the official version of events, the press has demonstrated little inclination to pursue the story. Though long whispered in newsrooms, that it took a foreign journalist to provide the first serious look at potential casualty numbers is most telling.
As I wrote this, news broke of yet another Al Shabaab attack, this time on an Ethiopian-manned base in Somalia. This time, the Kenyan media had few qualms about speculating on casualties or handing the terrorists a propaganda coup, the very excuses it has offered for not pursuing the El Adde story. That the coverage of the attack on the Ethiopians was carefully scrubbed of any mention of El Adde despite the obvious similarities, betrays their real concern: sparing KDF and government blushes.
Meantime, official statements about other events in Somalia continue to rampage across the headlines unchallenged. Kenya Defence Forces’ claims about battlefield successes against the Al Shabaab are reported as gospel truth, even when the facts are in dispute. It is a most curious and intriguing stance taken by a media fraternity that is widely acclaimed as one of the most vibrant on the continent. In truth, the accolades have routinely tended to overstate our media’s autonomy and gusto while underplaying its short memory and its marked tendency to kowtow to politicians and officialdom.
The coverage of the current impasse over electoral reforms and over the fate of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission also highlights some of these shortcomings. Since the 2013 general election, it has been obvious to anyone who cared to look into it, that the electoral system is in dire straits. Its performance (as well as that of the Supreme Court) in that poll left plenty to be desired and a sharply divided country. Yet in the last 3 years, the media has not prioritized the telling of this story. This despite the fact that a clear public interest exists: violence has accompanied all but one election in the multiparty era and the bungled 2007 contest almost tipped us into the abyss of anarchy and civil war.
Indeed, it was not until politicians exploited the situation to create a crisis that the media collectively took note. And even then, the reporting has been little more than an uncritical regurgitation of the opposing sides’ statements. Little energy is expended in articulating the issues of disagreement and whether these reflect simple party political and individual interests or are driven by a serious desire and plan to protect the national interest. Is the dispute about acquiring or preserving jobs for politicians or about fixing the broken system?
The media’s preoccupation has been with the political battles, with picking the winner and losers, rather than with the substance of the fight. A consequent failure to distinguish smoke from fire has allowed the politicians to shape the public discourse in self-serving ways that obscure what’s really at stake. This is how we have ended up with a national debate about the rather absurd proposition that the constitution somehow forbids dialogue or the equally preposterous idea that IEBC commissioners can be fired by physically ejecting them from their offices in Anniversary Towers.
Just as with the tragic El Adde debacle, Kenyan media has mostly been a forum for obfuscation and misdirection rather than a source of light and understanding. It has betrayed the Kenyans who, at great cost in lives, took on autocrats to defend the freedom it profits from and sadly abuses. When it abdicates its agenda-setting role and conspires in the silencing of voices critical of government; when it would rather cover up than expose official misdeeds; when it becomes a megaphone for Orwellian doublespeak; then a free media becomes an instrument of oppression and tyranny rather than a necessary bulwark against it.