Media Hague hype overshadowed our national brand

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BY EZEKIEL MUTUA

Though the Kenya cases at The Hague are unprecedented in our national experience, the media overkill and pure hype surrounding the first appearance of the so-called "Ocampo Six" before the International Criminal Court (ICC) are appalling, to say the least.

I have always, in this column and elsewhere, opposed and condemned the journalism that is three parts trivia, malicious and sensational and only one part development. There could never be a worse manifestation of this type of journalism than the way our mass media have reported The Hague melodrama.

The week before the Six set off for The Hague, the Daily Nation ran a front-page story that included a night club and restaurant guide to the city the Dutch call Den Haag, all complete with a Red Light (legalised prostitution) district guide! It was as if every occasion is a not-to-be-missed leisure and sex opportunity for well-off Kenyans!

Did the newspaper mean to suggest that our top leaders are as depraved and frivolous as to be actually decadent? How did the consideration of expensive restaurants, night-clubbing and paid-for sex at all arise in the context of the preliminaries of an international crimes-against-humanity trial?

That same week, Alex Chamwada of Citizen TV went around the streets of Den Haag, interviewing the poor inhabitants of the city on the subject of the Kenya Six. Many of his interlocutors appeared to be unaware even of the existence or purpose of the ICC in their own city, much less of the Kenyan accused! What is this gramophone treatment of the Kenya cases in aid of? Why amplify the matter before Dutch ignoramuses who don\’t care a whit what Kenyans have done or not done?

I single out the Nation Media Group and Citizen TV because they used to set very high standards indeed for extremely sensitive court proceedings. It was the selfsame Daily Nation which, way back in 1969-70, gave newspaper readers their first truly professional journalism covering a major court case, that time\’s Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) James Karugu\’s classic prosecution of Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, the man accused and convicted of assassinating Economic Development Minister Thomas Joseph Mboya.

Kenyans had never read a blow-by-blow account of a cause célèbre before. The East African Standard, the oldest daily newspaper in Kenya, failed to do the same in 1952-3 for the trial of the Kapenguria Six led by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta simply because this was then a little more than a colonial broadsheet and had the monopoly of the English language daily mainstream newspaper market. When the Standard again missed the golden opportunity of reporting the Mboya murder trial verbatim, it no longer had the market monopoly and the Nation seized the day, overtook the Standard and has never looked back.

As for Citizen TV, they were the channel back in 2003-04 which brought us the Goldenberg hearings under the judicial commission of inquiry chaired by Justice Samuel Bosire in full and unexpurgated on a daily basis after prime-time. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans stayed up till late watching the proceedings. Today, Citizen, a channel that had barely any advertising in 2003-4, is the king of TV ads in the electronic media segment.

In both 1969-70 and 2003-4, the coverage of truly sensational cases was done in such a professional and creative manner that, negative as the deeds then being prosecuted were, there were no overtly negative impacts on any other aspects of Kenya\’s national life – not the economy, even though Goldenberg concerns terrible crimes against the economy; not tourism; and not Kenya\’s image or standing in the comity of nations.

The Hague cases are potentially the most politically polarising and divisive litigation concerning Kenyans and Kenya in our generation. How they are reported and analysed in the media will impact on our image, not only locally, but also internationally.

On the day William Ruto arrived in The Hague accompanied by some 24 MPs, the lead item on the BBC World Service, Google News, Reuters and Al Jazeera was the Ivory Coast\’s Laurent Gbagbo and how he was holed up in the cellar of the Presidential Palace in Abidjan as troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara stormed the place. The Kenyan arrivals were relegated to the BBC\’s Focus on Africa programme.

But the Kenyan media have an amazing obsession with the negative and the bizarre: They are hell-bent on creating a country of cynics and pessimists. Indeed, occasionally, Kenyans are even described as being among the world\’s most optimistic people. But our media behave as if we are a nation of cry babies and professional doomsayers, serving us a news diet predicated on doom and disaster.

Where is the saturation coverage and killer hype when Kenyans run rings around others and win marathons the world over? Where were they when Prof Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and Time, the global US newsmagazine, got through to her first with their feature "10 Questions for Wangari Maathai"? Neither NTV nor Citizen has ever sent a crew abroad to tell the wazungu about the Seventh Wonder of the modern world, the Great Migration of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara.

One of the great untold stories about The Hague and Kenya is the fact that Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto are actually friends, not foes, and much extraordinary healing and reconciliation among the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, some of whom were the main combatants of the PEV, has taken place since the chaos barely three-and-a-half years ago. Not much attention is being paid to this key fact and yet it matters a very great deal indeed and ought to impact very profoundly on both the cases being prepared at The Hague and on our nation brand.

(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke)

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