Philip Ochieng: Kenya Elections: Media not blameless

An important question continues to stalk me. Will I affirm or deny the charge that the media were biased in their reports on both the polls and the ethnic violence occasioned by vote tallying?

It is difficult to deny it. Many newspaper reports, analyses and personal columns that I read appeared lopsided on the basis of the tribal grouping with which the one or the other party was identified.

But I cannot affirm whether this failing was subjective or merely objective. The difference is significant. Objective failings happen unconsciously. They may result simply from lack of training or experience. A reporter just may not know how to squeeze all the low-down out of a source.

But what the media are being accused of is subjectivism. The charge is that reporters or their editors deliberately omit or intrude or arrange or interpret the facts and figures in such a way as to put a person or a party at an advantage and his (its) rival at a disadvantage.

What embarrassed me, as a long-standing newspaper gate-keeper, was the suspicion – strengthened by the by-lines – that some of the culpable writers were driven by tribalism. It often looked as if a huge ethnic wedge had been driven deeply into the Press corps.

Was it by happenstance that the most unintelligent among the pro-ODM writers (especially of the letters to the editor) were Luo or Luhya or Kalenjin? Could it be fortuitous that most of their Kikuyu, Embu and Meru counterparts could not dress their pro-PNU subjectivisms in any verbal sophistication?

Although I am a fierce critic of Samuel Kivuitu, it embarrasses me because it puts me in the same moral and intellectual brackets as those who look at him and his alleged failings through purely ethnic lenses.

What I gather is that Kenya’s media houses nowadays hire only applicants with postgraduate communication training, including courses in balanced reporting, fair comment and general ethics.

This should help curb ethnic chauvinism. So how do we account for the profuse toxic tribal vitriol which our vernacular FM stations – all owned by highly educated Kenyans – poured forth just before and just after the elections? If these people call themselves journalists, what has parochialised them so appallingly?

But perhaps the suppliers of raw material – the reporters, analysts and commentators – are not to be blamed alone. Many writers worldwide complain that what they offer to their newspapers is completely different from what finally appears on a page the next morning.

EVEN IN THE LIBERAL WEST, THE REPORTER IS OFTEN nothing but the “Myrmidon of the editor.” I take the quoted words from Anthony Smith’s book The Geopolitics of Information. It refers to the Greek myth in which an army of ants served Achilles as cannon fodder during the siege of Troy.

The history of journalism is full of armchair editors, chief executives and media owners who regularly deliberately corrupt reporters’ copy – such as by truncating it or injecting into it some extraneous material, including slants, etc.

John McGoff (of Panax Corporation), William Randolph Hearst of the San Francisco Chronicle), Orvil Dryfoos and Ochs Sulzberger of the New York Times, Catherine Graham of the Washington Post, Roland “Tiny” Rowland (of The Times of London), Sir James Goldsmith (of L’Express of Paris), Axel Springer (of Germany’s Die Welt) and Australia’s Rupert Murdoch of News International come readily to mind.

Henry Luce of Time magazine regularly wrote heavily into correspondents’ copy, distorting it beyond the original author’s recognition to bring it into line with the official prejudices and desires. To this corruption is added the worldwide charge that journalists are “on the take.”

The irony is that the politicians and businessmen – those who make the loudest noise about such media rot – are the only ones who can be motivated to push a few quid into a journalist’s pocket to induce him to write and print candy-coated stories about them and slanderous ones about their rivals.

If it is true, too, that Kenya’s Press responds significantly to chauvinistic ethnic urges, then our journalists have been reduced to mere caddies in a game which pits ethnic elites against ethnic elites and has long ago earned for Kenya the sobriquet “Man-Eat-Man Society”.

It would be tragic if these forms of corruption have permeated the entire Press corps like the “invisible worm” that crept into the poet’s rose garden and destroyed his pet flower (“O rose, thou art sick”). For the media have special potential to help banish corruption and tribalism from our midst.

That is why it is appropriate for the Minister for Information to name experienced media people to study the way the media contributed to the crisis which continues to threaten to destroy our country and to suggest how to extirpate the causes of these scourges once and for all.

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