Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Covering Kenya

Imagine if the real nail-biting presidential elections in the U.S., when we go to bed without knowing who has won the election, were the norm rather than the exception.  That’s the case in Kenya, where officials overseeing the electoral process are aspiring to get results out within 48 hours. 

Now think about how hysterical the media in the U.S. gets in the handful of hours between the closing of the polls and confirmation of the victor.  Wolf Blitzer, a droning, uncharismatic presenter with no ability to ask thoughtful follow-ups at the best of time, repeats himself until viewers’ ears want to fall off.  FOX news propagandists spin so furiously that recovery from the self-induced dizziness probably requires a full week after the election.  They pump out statistics which are entirely separated from their context, and make wildly absurd assertions, such that I often wonder if they are literally reading tea leaves.  And so on.  Imagine if they had to wait 48 hours. 

There are many reasons why international coverage of Kenya’s election leaves something to be desired.  Yesterday, I found a forum on which Kenyans were fulminating over a CNN story which painted the country as a place totally immobilised by tribalism.  Kenyans, the article suggested, are a people prone to random acts of inexplicable violence.  CNN and its ilk can’t make up their minds whether they want to consider such violence an innate part of the country’s fabric, or a phenomenon of the past decade, given the insistence of the U.S. media for many years that Kenya was a haven of peace, prosperity, and tourism (this when the country was not struggling to hold a democratic election, but was instead reeling under the abuses of a U.S.-backed dictator). 

Such sloppy reporting is by no means restricted to U.S. media.  This morning I ran across an article in the Guardian titled “Kenya presidential candidate facing criminal charges takes election lead”.  The sub-heading reads, “Claims that deputy PM Uhuru Kenyatta orchestrated post-election violence in 2007-08 in which more than 1,000 died”. 

The problems with articles of this sort are legion.  Many Kenyans are furious that the West has appointed itself as an arbiter of who makes a legitimate candidate.  They point out that in a just world, George W Bush would be sitting alongside Kenyatta at the ICC (as would Kenyatta’s primary opponent).  I marvel at the clumsiness of western media outlets and western governments, which clearly sought to deter Kenyatta’s candidacy, noting that donor countries and agencies would look unkindly on the election of someone who is charged with engineering crimes against humanity.  These efforts were a boon to Kenyatta’s candidacy in a country where people resent being pushed around by the U.S. and European nations, where neo-colonialism flourishes, and where people are proud of their spirited democracy.

A more appropriate sub-heading for the article—if indeed the Guardian felt it necessary to talk about an election lead at a time when fewer than 1/3 of the votes across an uneven spectrum of the country have been counted—might have qualified their assertion about Kenyatta’s lead, explained some of the difficulties in the process of vote-counting, or, if violence was really what it wanted, could have noted secessionist attacks in a couple of places in the country.

The article is happy to acknowledge deeper into the story that the statistics they cite are basically meaningless because they are so unrepresentative.  International media lacks either the knowledge, the in-country logistics, or the motivation to present a picture of what voting looks like across Kenya’s regions, and what real trends could be elicited from those votes which have so far been counted. 

From here, I don’t have a good sense of how things are going.  I have heard that things are quiet, and have not heard since yesterday from a friend who is working as an election monitor—a job which is probably running him ragged at the moment, given the pressure on the counters and monitors to turn out results quickly and decisively. 

Perhaps silence—if serious reporting is too much to ask—would be a nice service from the international media until there is something more certain to report.  By speculating, apparently without grounds, about who is winning the election or leading in the count, they will only add fuel to the sense of uncertainty, contribute to the rumour-mongering which helped to fuel very calculated killing in 2007, and further damage their credibility with Kenyans, while doing a disservice to their home readerships and audiences.

The Guardian quoted the head of Kenya’s voting agency as saying “Nobody should celebrate, nobody should complain, we therefore continue to appeal for patience from the public, the political parties as well as the candidates”. He might have added, “and from the international media, which is too eager to make easy, salacious, and uncontextualised copy”.

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