Lessons for Zimbabwe’s media from Kenya’s coverage of its elections


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The history of Kenya and Zimbabwe is incredibly similar. They were hubs of British power in East and Southern Africa. Nairobi was developed as the capital of East Africa and Harare, or Salisbury as it then was, as the capital of the Federation of Central Africa.

Resources from Tanzania and Uganda were used to develop Nairobi and East African Airlines. Resources from Zambia, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was, and Malawi, or Nyasaland as it was called, were used to develop Harare and Central African Airways.

As the hubs for the colonisers, Nairobi and Harare have always attracted greater attention from the British, and generally the West, than Kampala and Dar es Salaam or Lusaka and Lilongwe.

Pressure was piled on Daniel arap Moi to go as it was on Robert Mugabe to go. Moi left, was replaced by Mwai Kibaki, who has in turn been replaced by Uhuru Kenyatta. Mugabe stays put.

Though Kenya has changed guard and the future of Zimbabwe remains to be seen, the history of the two countries has also been incredibly similar in the last five years or so.

Kenya had its indecisive elections in 2007, forcing Kibaki and Raila Odinga to enter into a coalition government with Odinga as Prime Minister.

Zimbabwe had its indecisive elections in 2008 forcing Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai to enter into a coalition with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.

In Kenya more than 1 300 people were killed in the post election violence before the leaders decided to form a coalition government. In Zimbabwe, the figure was put at about 200.

Kenya has just held another election. This time there was no violence though Odinga disputed the results. The Supreme Court confirmed Uhuru’s election and everything is now quiet.

Zimbabwe is yet to hold its elections but everyone is already predicting a repeat of 2008.

The peace in Kenya has been credited to the media, but the Kenyan media has received a lot of flak from the West. It has stood its ground arguing that “freedom comes with responsibility.”

The Kenyan media was also praised by journalists from the East African region at the World Press Freedom day in Arusha, Tanzania.

Michela Wrong in her piece about the way the Kenyan media reported the elections, said the coverage, while slick was lifeless.

“It feels as though a zombie army has taken up position where Kenya’s feisty media used to, with local reporters going glaze-eyed through the motions.”

She said the Kenyan media’s self-restraint revealed a society terrified by its own capacity for violence and quoted a Kenyan cartoonist as saying: “What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge?”

Kiprono Kittony, chairman of the Kenya Media Owners Association argued: “There was no self-censorship as suggested by the foreign media. Cognisant of the fact that we are key stakeholders in the process, we adopted a cautious approach to pronouncements from the political class. We took up the role of being custodians for peace along the usual watchdog role. In both the run up and the aftermath of the elections, local media played an important role in the advocacy for a peaceful election.”

The foreign media, on the other hand, Kittony wrote, “seems to have approached the Kenya elections with a predetermined narrative of doom and gloom.”

“Freedom comes with responsibility and it is this responsibility we have demonstrated in word and deed in the election process,” he concluded.

Mukoma wa Ngugi who said he used to marvel the BBC and Voice of America in the 1980s said: “But in 2013, I and many other Kenyans saw western media coverage of the Kenya elections as a joke, a caricature. Western journalists have been left behind by an Africa moving forward: not in a straight line, but in fits and starts, elliptically, and still full of contradictions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but forward nevertheless”

He also queried why when it came to Africa, western journalists only wrote one side of the story, about the violence, but never did the same when reporting about disasters in their own countries.

“.. when it comes to writing about Africa, journalists suddenly have to make a choice between the extraordinary violence and ordinary life. It should not be a question of either the extreme violence or quiet happy times, but rather a question of telling the whole story within an event, even when tragedy is folded within tragedy.

“There are activist organisations in the Congo standing against rampant war and against rape as a weapon. The tide of the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 turned because there were ordinary people in the slums and villages organising against it – that is, people who stood on the right side of history as opposed to ethnicity – in the same way Americans across the racial spectrum stood last year with the American Sikh community.

“In any situation, there are those who perpetrate and those who, defenceless and weak, still stand up at great cost for what is right or just. It is the nature of humanity – that is why we are still here, as a species. We struggle often against forces stronger than ourselves. Sometimes we triumph and just as often we fail.

“The question for western journalists is this – when it comes to Africa, why do you not tell the whole story of the humanity at work even in times of extreme violence?” he asks.

Mwangi Kimenyi also praised the local media for its role adding: “One major lesson for the international community is that peace is more likely to be durable when it’s the people of Kenya and their own institutions that are left to handle their problems.”

He was very critical of western media coverage, saying: “Apparently, international media outlets sent their best war correspondents and not election experts. It seems like they expected to cover stories of violence rather than elections.”

Zimbabwe’s media could also play a key role in the coming elections by putting the nation first and not the politicians or political parties.

Click here to read the original Kenyan stories cited in this story.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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