An ominous picture hit the front page of the New York Times newspaper last week.
It captured a University of Nairobi student with a bewildered look, caught between baton-wielding police officers called in to quell a protest that had spilled onto the streets and turned ugly.
It is no mean feat to get anything Kenyan covered by the New York Times. It’s one of the highly regarded newspapers in the US, published out of the city after which it is named and which is America’s financial capital.
In Britain, the Daily Mail and The Telegraph also played up the pictures from the student riots. Although they are independent newspapers that make their own editorial judgment, conspiracy theorists were quick to judge it as part of a wider conspiracy by Western nations to punish the Jubilee government in line with the “choices have consequences” statement made by a former US diplomat for Africa, Mr Johnnie Carson.
Western media have also increasingly been giving heightened coverage to acts of terrorism and insecurity in Kenya – which the government says is out of proportion with the reality in the country.
DID NOT MEAN TO PUNISH KENYA
Western diplomats in Nairobi have strenuously insisted that they did not mean to punish Kenya by issuing travel advisories and are only acting in the best interests of their countries, a position that is hardly believable in government circles.
Critics of the advisories say it is the same diplomats – 18 of them – who closed ranks two months ago to write a joint commentary about corruption in Kenya and that it is only one part of a clever scheme to discredit the government or bring it under their control.
Immediately after London issued travel advisories cautioning their citizens against visiting certain parts of Kenya, some tour firms followed up by evacuating hundreds of tourists. President Uhuru Kenyatta responded by stating that Kenya would look for tourists from alternative sources.
Tourism Cabinet Secretary Phyllis Kandie knows the gravity of the problem in her in-tray only too well. Tourist arrivals dropped by about 15 per cent in 2013 compared to the previous year leading to a revenue loss for the industry of about Sh2 billion and closure of no less than 20 hotels in the Coast, according to government statistics.
Political scientist Peter Kagwanja says that the West is undoubtedly out to punish the Jubilee coalition and possibly cause Kenyans to drive the government out of power for its open association with China.
“The conspiracy is deeper and practical than it is appearing. When you begin to think of a campaign, the first thing that you factor in is the media.
There is an effort to create an impression in the public that Kenya is not working, that the two leaders are unable to govern. There is a consistent plan,” said Prof Kagwanja.
He says that in his reading, there is a connection between the university riots and the advisories and then the assertion by the Opposition that Jubilee is failing.
“There is an Egyptian script. Whether it will succeed or not, they are trying it. Within one year of (former Egyptian President) Morsi’s election, the West sponsored a popular uprising. You smear and then move in for the kill by getting Opposition politicians to mobilise the people and bring them out on the streets and then publicise it to the world. Within that chaotic environment, create a transitional authority and then an election follows and they can pick a person of their choice,” said Prof Kagwanja.
According to him, the West is reacting to the recent high-profile visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the deepening of ties between Beijing and governments in the East African region.
“The Chinese leader coming to Kenya would itself not have been a big problem. But for Kenya to mobilise the region’s leaders and bring them for a high profile event was read as an affront,” Prof Kagwanja said.
BLOWN OUT OF PROPORTION
Mrs Kandie thinks that those issuing travel advisories and the media coverage of recent events in Kenya have been blown out of proportion.
“Our country’s image and reputation is being slowly eroded by exaggeration of and over-reaction to these incidences by some of our foreign partners leading to extreme travel advisories, to the point of evacuation, that are causing hotel closures and job losses,” she said.
“But the most critical and most hurtful aspect is the erosion of the confidence in this country and this destination. Our reputation as a tourism destination is at stake.”
Mrs Kandie is also critical of media coverage accorded to Kenya abroad. “It is a well-known and understood fact that foreign media rely heavily on our local media as reference points on the stories they report on insecurity. Naturally foreign media when lifting stories from local reports will often misrepresent the situation to our national detriment.”
“I am not suggesting by any means that you divert from telling the truth, or water down stories, I am merely asking for a heightened awareness of the impact of our headlines, judgment in crafting them and a constant eye on national interest,” she added.
State House in part believes that the advisories and the intense media coverage the country has received lately from some foreign media houses is part of a bigger conspiracy against Kenya.
“The plan to justify evacuation of tourists and lockdown of embassies was evidence. It was surprising to see last week’s university riots on the front pages of some major Western newspapers yet the needless riots didn’t even get much of front page coverage in Nairobi,” said a State House spokesman Munyori Buku.
According to Mr Buku; “Diplomatic rumours to make Kenya look bad finally met the printing press.”
“But Kenya will soldier on,” he said. “This week’s measures to boost local tourism and seek visitors from emerging markets will bring a lasting answer to these antics. Kenya will liberate itself as it did when the tax collection ended the humiliating bowl-in-hand days of begging for aid.”
Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar does not believe there is a conspiracy against Kenya by Western power but says it is possible that Kenya’s traditional Western allies have been rattled by Jubilee’s dalliance with Beijing.
“Maybe they are unsettled by the Chinese but whether there is a conspiracy is something I’m reluctant to buy. These are our partners in other areas like security and counter-terrorism. You need to make an assessment of what has gone wrong and then try to share some fact and figures so that it becomes the basis on which you can have a joint approach as partners,” Mr Omar told the Sunday Nation. Mombasa is one of the counties that has borne the brunt of attacks.
CRITICISED APPROACH TO TERROR
He however criticised the West’s response to terror attacks in Kenya.
“I fault the Western because Kenya has been a traditional ally. Also, this is about business markets and business. Our reaction should have been; how do we sort out the problems so that the numbers of tourists can flow. It is a fallacy to think that Chinese will come where there is insecurity. Is there a way that we can improve security so that tourists and indeed all Kenyans are safe? The approach should have been totally different. Advisories should be preceded by consultation,” said the Senator.
Tourism consultant Arthur Mahasi says that the Tourism ministry must counter the adverse advisories with a deliberate charm offensive to woo tourists.
“Appropriate strategies have always worked for many unstable countries. If travel advisories are not countered, tourists will think what their government says is the gospel truth,” Mr Mahasi said.
He proposes that immediately a terrorism activity occurs, the country through embassies should organise conferences for industry players in the originating countries to supply hard facts about the actual status in the country.
“If tourists don’t want to visit Mombasa because they fear being attacked, it is not the whole country which is on fire. They can be re-routed to safer places such as Western or the northern Kenya tourism circuit,” said Mr Mahasi.
Reported by Mugumo Munene, Abiud Ochieng and Aggrey Mutambo