When Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga held a mock inauguration last week declaring himself the ‘people’s president’, he was out to discredit the results of an election held late last year that he eventually boycotted, saying the vote was rigged.
But Uhuru Kenyatta’s government wants to put the election story behind it, get on with governing, and deny Odinga the oxygen of publicity, so it ordered media outlets to ignore the alternative inauguration.
When three privately-owned TV channels defied those orders and tried to broadcast the event, the authorities pulled the plug on them, setting off a debate on who gets to decide what constitutes news in Kenya, journalists or politicians. But however aggrieved they claim to be, Kenyan media have some of their own credibility issues to deal with.
“It might have seemed like a good idea in the short term, as a show of force, but what it does in the long-term is it says, ‘We are going to undermine the public’s right to information for the sake of securing of this short-term power’. And that’s a real threat to democracy,” says writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola.
“If they [Kenyatta government] hadn’t given it [Odinga’s rally] as much attention as they did, it would have just been a footnote in the political history of the country,” he adds.
Kenya’s presidential election should have been settled five months ago when Kenyatta was declared the winner by 10 points over Odinga. Odinga challenged the result and was backed by the Supreme Court, which had ordered another vote for October.
The second round played out like a farce. Odinga pulled out, saying the fix was in. A key member of the electoral commission fled the country, citing political interference and death threats. Voter turnout was less than half of what it was in round one, and the electoral commission declared Kenyatta the winner, with more than 98 percent of the vote.
“In most civilised countries, when the electoral commission gives the result, that is the result and everybody accepts it and the country moves on,” says Joe Ageyo, managing editor of KTN News. “In Kenya we have a very, very different society because there is suspicion, there’s always a question mark, what didn’t they tell us? Did they hide something? And I think the media finds itself in that space.”
Most notably, after the election in late 2007. The results were disputed and the violence lasted for months. In the electoral aftermath, more than 1,000 were killed and more than half a million displaced.
While the causes of that violence were many and complex, the Kenyan media got much of the blame.
During the campaign, television stations had aired incendiary political ads – in breach of their regulations. Small, local radio stations incited post-election violence by broadcasting hate speech.
Stung by that criticism, many Kenyan news outlets toned down their content and played it safe ahead of the 2013 vote that resulted in Kenyatta’s election, so “the media was then criticised in 2013, and I think rightly so, for having been too careful,” says Ageyo.
By year’s end his government passed a new media law giving itself the power to fine news outlets – a law that the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists described as draconian.
“They escalated the ‘We want peace’ narrative….You’re not a PR agency. You’re the media! Your job is to, to keep their feet to the fire, to keep them honest. That’s the whole concept of a fourth estate that [it] keeps people honest. And when they decide to go in bed with the executive and become an extension of the executive, if you think about it as a table, it’s a table with three legs. How is it supposed to stand?” says Nyabola.
Ultimately, this story comes down to questions of legitimacy.
The Kenyatta government had its legitimacy challenged by Raila Odinga in the most public of ways. The media tried to broadcast that ceremony, hoping to regain the legitimacy they squandered last year, falling short as election watchdogs and going soft on the Kenyatta government.
If the Kenyan media thought that would land them in the government’s good graces, what happened last week proved they made a big mistake. And going to black, the way they did, will have come
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