Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Is Real Reporting on Kenya So Hard?

Kenya’s recent election, held on 4 March, passed off without major incident.  It yielded a victor—by a razor-thin and contested margin—and observers generally believed it to be “free and fair”.  The country did not combust in mass violence, and Kenyans did not set about what certain elements in the fourth estate would have us believe to be Africa’s “national” pastime, chopping each other to bits.

Tom Mboya appears to offer sage advice to Kenyan youth in downtown Nairobi.
And the only thing that’s sad about this not-very-shocking turn of events is that I get the sense from some commentators in the media that they’re a bit disappointed.  Conflict and war and famine and disease are, after all, about the only things that get Africa into our news here in the U.S. and in Europe. 

The most pathetic example of this bloodlust on the part of western media came in the form of an AP article on FOX titled “Kenya media outlets practice self-censorship to keep election tensions down”.  Therein, a bemused journalist wrote unblushingly, “It’s the biggest news of the year in Kenya: a presidential election with huge potential for violence”.  Lest you think maybe that just came off the press sounding wrong, it goes on: “Why then are the headlines so boring, the TV broadcasts so dull?  The answer: Kenyan media are self-censoring to avoid fanning the flames of conflict”.

What self-censorship I saw from here did not look particularly egregious, but I think that what the article meant was that the media wasn’t making things up, saying absurd things about violence, or trying to create good copy in a way that toyed with people’s safety.  From the perspective of media here, however, there’s no other reason besides the violence to report on a place like Kenya, so perhaps it’s understandable that they were baffled as Kenyans reported on the election as though it was an election instead of the bloodbath western journalists seem to have been hoping to see unfold from the edge of their seats.

So what would I prefer the media cover?

Well, think about how we would expect them to cover an election in the United States.

Journalists try to work out which issues are on people’s minds.  They often evaluate the political platforms of various candidates.  They frequently compare the two and see how well they match up, and why they might or might not.  They write, in concrete terms, about the various interests (social, commercial, political, etc) which have an interest in the election.  They provide context for this information, about our economy, for example.  They highlight hot-button issues.

Kenya, like the United States, is a country of much economic, social, ethnic, and cultural diversity, so there is plenty of work for journalists to do in assessing people’s interests and ambitions across its varied geographies and demographies. 

Reporters could focus on the Kenyan economy.  They could inform readers about the country’s more significant industries, their geographical relation to one another, and the labour conditions and lives of the people who work in these industries.  They could describe the character of foreign investment, and investigate whether investors have a stake in the presidential or parliamentary elections.

As most articles mention, Kenyans overhauled their constitution in August of 2010, a move then heralded as the ushering in of the Second Republic.  The overhaul changed the relationship between different levels of government, and is designed to devolve more power to localities.  It might have been interesting to learn something about whether the discourse or concerns at the local level mirrors the national debate that too-often provides our only birds-eye glimpse into other countries.

Journalists could bring some attention to the tax code, something which concerns any government, and look into who is supposed to pay taxes, who does pay taxes, and how much they pay.  A country’s tax code, its ability to collect revenue, and the way in which it spends public funds offers a more interesting and illuminating window into its character than the baloney about savage tribes favoured in too much of the press. 

The most common complaint I heard from Kenyans when I was there in 2012 was the steadily rising price of basic goods: bread, meal for ugali, vegetables, etc.  This in a country which has in the past experienced famine while in its riches regions plantation owners grow tea, coffee, and cut flowers for export.  Any of these significant industries could easily be the subject of some reporting, as could healthcare, the other most basic concern of people everywhere in the world.  Where do most Kenyans turn for healthcare?  To established clinics or hospitals, to the informal sector that provides many of life’s other needs? 

They could look into the education system.  I know one issue which preoccupies many Kenyans is the uneven quality of an education which is free at the primary level but is often accompanied with hidden fees when not a degree of extortion.  Schools are frequently understaffed and teachers often go lengthy periods of time without pay.  Why is this the case?  Such issues would be interesting given that we face similar dilemmas, albeit on a different scale, in our own education system.

 Reporters could say something about political participation.  Kenyan political participation takes the form of anonymous mobs in most writing that we see in the United States, and it would be interesting to know whether students, for example, play an important role in campaigns.  Are there labour organisations, commercial conglomerates, local societies, or other social groupings that play a role in electioneering?  A common suggesting in reporting is that Kenya’s leaders are forever pulling the wool over the eyes of the wananchi.  But they have constituencies who go beyond simply voting and who are prepared to campaign actively for them.  How are these constituencies organised?

These are complex topics, but not ones on which it would be particularly difficult to research and report.  They are topics which could offer more real insight into Kenyan politics and society than the fare journalists currently offer up. 

If Kenya is really a country of critical interest to the United States (the cliché that rolls so easily off the press), maybe we should actually learn something about the country.  Maybe—here’s a wild thought—journalists should do their job in other countries in the same way they do back at home.  That might not be the highest bar, but their coverage is so dreadfully warped, I’m pretty confident that with a little effort they can easily outdo themselves.  Here’s to hoping.

No comments:

Post a Comment