British author-journalist Michela Wrong has just penned what I consider a great insult on the Kenyan media.
Readers will remember Ms Wrong as the writer of the instantly forgettable sensational book on anti-graft crusader John Githongo, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower (Fourth Estate Books, 2009).
In an article headlined “To be Prudent is to be Partial”, Ms Wrong throws a tantrum worthy of a shrew, in which she also scorns the entire complement of international observers of Kenya’s 11th General Election. And she specifically names the teams of observers of the AU, the EU and the Commonwealth as being “inexcusably complacent”.
Ms Wrong declares that the Kenyan journalism sector has given her the impression that “a zombie army has taken up position where Kenya’s feisty media used to be, with local reporters going glaze-eyed through the motions”.
What’s her beef? Simply this: That the Kenyan media was not in activist and openly partisan mode throughout the General Election, including the nail-biting week-long tallying and transmission of votes.
And both the media and the observers gave the Electoral Commission every benefit of the doubt even as, “what had been billed as a high-tech, tamper-proof election began to unravel spectacularly”.
Ms Wrong is most wrongheaded and at her worst when she pretends to understand the predicament of the Kenyan media, in the context of the 2007-08 crises: “Chastened by that experience, media executives reached a gentlemen’s agreement to avoid anything that might whip up ethnic tensions ahead of this year’s election. There would be no live coverage of announcements or press conferences by political parties”.
This is a glaring inaccuracy. The point is not so much that there was no real-time coverage as that Kenyan journalism has moved on from a culture of raw reportage to one of analytical news, a broadcast media practice and standard the world over.
The Kenyan media has come a long way since 2007-08, when it is itself the first to confess that it was sucked into the divisions that drove the post-election violence and became a player, not a dispassionate chronicler and analyst. What’s more, the Constitution now in force enshrines the freedom of the media in Article 34, and therefore, any suggestion about an officially gagged or unduly restrained media is a malicious fiction.
In fact, the Western media is the world leader of self-restraint and biting the journalistic tongue when it comes to sensitive matters impacting directly on the West itself.
Advancements in information communications technologies (ICTs) have reduced raw reportage the world over to a function of social media networking, not professional newsrooms and media house brands with a local, regional and global outreach and reputation to protect.
Even in the West, such sensitive and potentially explosive events as the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that paralysed the central business districts of several American metropolises were not covered in real time by the mainstream multimedia news houses.
However, the Western media gave the Thai “Red Shirts” riots of May 2010 and the “Arab Spring” protests of 2011/2012 something of a raw reportage dimension; keeping the cameras rolling on Bangkok as an entire CBD became a war zone and on the CBDs of Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli as they erupted. But they did not do this, for instance, with the London riots of August 6 to 10, 2011.
If the Kenyan media has erred in 2013, it has erred on the side of caution, and lives and property have been saved on an incalculable scale. Thug militias and recreational rapists have also been denied opportunistic “self-employment”.
Is it not infinitely better that an army of Kenyan journalists is “glazed-eyed” (perhaps because they are merely bored by long hours on the job, or by Ms Wrong’s very presence?) but are alive, than that 1,350 Kenyans are glazed-eyed because they are dead for no other reason than the electoral choice they made?
Kenyans, the Kenyan media and their thinking, compassionate and humane observers the world over approached Election 2013 with infinite care, caution, patience, circumspection and sensitivity precisely because they did not want to see ID cards turned into death warrants and voters’ cards into mass eviction notices.
The writer is freelance journalist based in Nairobi [email protected]