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Kenya elections showed how media has sold its soul

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In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, “Betrayal in the City,” the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don, is jailed for speaking his mind: “We have killed our past and are busy killing our future.”

As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.

Tension is building up as the announcement of final results is delayed and small protests have been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centers, many of which have led to clashes with police and, regrettably, to at least five deaths so far.

However, you wouldn’t know this from watching most Kenyan media, considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. While covering in detail the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by the main opposition presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media has, with the sole exception of the Star, nonetheless been determined to avoid any mention of the tension and the protests, which are small but seem to be spreading. Instead, it is currently regaling the country with colorful stories of the “Githeri Man,” Kenya’s new Internet sensation.

Further, on social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. Gangs of Twitter bots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests on local or international media, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage, and even threatening to shoot them.

Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hung on tenterhooks with politicians bickering over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.

Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run-up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of preempting violent protests in the event that the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism.” But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.

By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop Kenyan media houses from pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for allegedly broadcasting illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017.” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta).

The wrier, Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.

WASHINGTON POST

Opinion | Kenya’s elections show how the media has sold its soul

In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, “Betrayal in the City,” the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don, is jailed for speaking his mind: “We have killed our past and are busy killing our future.”

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