Media has massive duty in Constitution debate

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BY ROB MACAIRE

One of the things that has struck me in watching this difficult debate on the Constitution is the responsibility on the media. Official civic education is absolutely critical of course, but it is never going to reach everyone in the country.  So the media has to carry some of the burden of trying to explain to people impartially and responsibly what is in the proposed draft, how it differs from the current one, and how it will affect Kenyans.

With over 800,000 Kenyans on Facebook alone and around 17 million Kenyans with mobile phones, online news and discussion groups have growing followings. I want to use this blog to engage with these so do flag up those you think interesting. But it will be some time before new media becomes as significant as traditional print and broadcast channels.  For many in rural areas, radio is still the only way to hear what is going on, especially for those more comfortable with their vernacular language.  That puts a weighty responsibility on editors and presenters.   Chat shows and phone-ins can have a big influence, and the experience of the post election violence has led media houses to realise they cannot just disclaim views as those of others.

I’m confident that the Kenya media is well-placed to take on this responsibility and agree with comments I hear, particularly from other African visitors on how professional the Kenyan media is.  It has played a key role in holding government to account, investigating and exposing corruption scandals, and contributing to an intelligent debate about political reform.  With increasing media confidence, and an ability to stand up against some overly defensive attempts at Government regulation, the authority with which it speak grows too. 

But I have experienced some downsides, not least in seeing quotes attributed to me, to diplomatic colleagues and even to our Ministers which we’ve never said.  When our last Minister for Africa visited Kenya, I had to explain to the Foreign Minister who rang to protest about comments he’d read in the press, that she had not made them.  The same goes for most of the outrage about \’foreign envoys\’ lecturing Kenya – much of the time you find out that people have chosen to put words into our mouths.  But while we can clear up most of the immediate misunderstandings, their effect lingers and can mislead wider audiences.   

The ethics and standards of journalism are arguably even more important as we near the referendum.  And I don’t think it’s enough to report comments accurately – the readers are owed objective analysis too. It’s been tragic to see some politicians whipping up the constitutional debate into a narrow, emotional campaign that plays on people\’s fear or intolerance of others. I really hope that the media will carry on with the positive role that they have mostly played so far, exposing untruths and helping ordinary Kenyans to understand what is actually contained in the draft, while taking the heat and anger out of the debate. We will support that and hope you will too.

(Rob Macaire is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.  This article was first published on the UK in Kenya blog http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/macaire/

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