BY EZEKIEL MUTUA
There is no gainsaying the fact that Kenyan media has come a long way since the height of the post-election violence barely three years ago.
At that time Kenyan newsrooms were singularly ill-equipped for reporting and analysing potentially conflict situations, full-blown conflict or communities emerging from conflict.
Indeed, for the most part, the media was caught up in the political melee that erupted at the KICC during the vote tallying for the 2007 General Election.
The result was a serious dereliction of the duty of care entrusted to the powerful influence of the media and, in some cases, particularly FM radio stations abused practically every known rubric of professional reportage, comment and good taste.
A number of media people and houses went out of their way and became political partisans and participants in the prelude to, the climax and the immediate aftermath of the chaos, completely forgetting themselves and their role and such horrifying antecedents as the role of FM radio in the Rwanda Genocide.
But as the famous Swahili adage goes, Kuteleza si kuanguka. The media immediately picked themselves up and began a process of soul-searching. Journalists attended numerous seminars and workshops locally and abroad on reporting and analysis in conflict situations.
Among the first media-oriented international NGOs and operatives to offer valuable advice on responsible journalism’s role in potential conflict and full-blown conflict environments was International Media Support (IMS) of Denmark and veteran journalist Ross Howard, who jointly brought out the unforgettable booklet entitled My Tribe is Journalism: Conflict-Sensitive Journalism. This landmark booklet told the story of the sudden outbreak of violence in Kenya and the tremendous pressures brought to bear on an ill-prepared media sector by the post-election crisis. The booklet offered invaluable practical guidelines on the coverage of conflicts. It was the result of at least three assessment missions to Kenya by IMS. Mr Howard, who is also a media trainer in conflict and democratisation, emphasised the professional standards Kenyans should stick to – reliability, responsibility, impartiality and accuracy. These essentials of good journalism had been regarded as merely academic by too many Kenyan journalists and media managers for too long.
“For citizens in a conflict to make well-informed decisions and perhaps resolve their conflict, they must have good journalism,” Howard argued as he offered a checklist against prejudice and powerfully reminded Kenyans that it is reliable journalism which earns the sector its special standing in society and in national constitutions around the world.
One of the most gratifying results of the on-the-job re-education of the Kenyan media sector after the PEV was the swiftest turnaround ever registered in an African media sector in a country that has gone to the brink and taken a good look over the precipice. Perhaps Kenya’s having been the venue of the protracted Sudan and Somali peace processes — one fairly successful in emerging from con¬flict and the other stillborn and still enmeshed in conflict— helped.
In the referendum campaign all sides of the debate got a hearing. Media houses also made a kill in terms of circulation and advertising revenues during the referendum campaigns.
It was no cake walk. A tremendous amount of hard work, willingness to learn, constructive criticism (for instance in this column and newspaper) and monitoring have gone into the sea-change in Kenyan journalistic standards when it comes to covering keenly competitive multiparty politics and politicking. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission also played its part, keeping a sharp and unblinking eye on both the political podiums and newsrooms, issuing stern and detailed warnings and hauling a number of politicos to court. Remarkably, not a single media house was roped in by the NCIC.
It is a welcome change to be celebrating both an indubitable national victory in the ushering in of the new Constitution and the birth of the Second Republic and very positive developments in the media sector.
Among many other good things, the media played a lead role in the civic education of the public ahead of the Big Vote, ensuring every shade of opinion was captured. The Op Ed pages and talk shows were full of well-written, well-argued and well-edited polemics for and against the new Constitution. Even the editorial cartooning was often hilarious and to the point.
The reporting and analyses of the results, including the creative use of ICTs (for instance tallying the result in the studios in almost real-time with the Independent Electoral Commission without second-guessing the IIEC), produced a thrilling finish right down to the wire in which millions were glued to their TVs and radios nationwide. It is not for nothing that the media have become some of the most trusted institutions in the country.
The Kenya of the Second Republic can only gain from a media sector that abjures blind partisanship and upholds professional standards.
The upholding of civilised, civic-minded and responsible standards in both the political and media sectors until 2012 and beyond can only mean Kenyans will be guaranteed transcendence over the national tragedy of 2007-08.
And as the American author and broadcaster Tom Bodett once observed, “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson”. I salute the Kenyan media for passing the severe test of lessons well and swiftly learnt and internalised since the PEV period and moving on to professionalize and consolidate best practice throughout the sector.
The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya.