Media’s role in promoting state stability cannot be overemphasized. It should be noted that the media is a double edged sword. It can be an instrument of conflict resolution, uniting tribes and forging ahead tribal unity in divided societies such as Kenya. On the other hand, the media can be a frightful weapon of violence when media outlets opt to propagate messages of negative tribalism, intolerance, and disinformation, encourage annihilation of persons belonging to certain tribes, just as it happened in Kenya following the 2007 disputed presidential results.
As a result of the post-election violence in 2008 in Kenya, quantitative and qualitative media analysis noted that while some media played a key role in promoting peace, majority of radios fuelled ethnic animosities that led to the killing of many Kenyans. Notable among those that fuelled ethnic animosity were the vernacular radio stations. Indeed, one of the suspects named by the International Criminal Court as one of the masterminds of the 2008 political violence in Kenya is a journalist in one of the vernacular radio stations.
Did we learn from what happened in 2008 during the political violence that took place? Not really. Why have the media relegated their role of setting the agenda and shaping public opinion to politicians? Why is the news in Kenya determined by the rallies and gatherings by MPs and what they say, most of which is divisive politics that divide Kenyans further and re-ignite the passions that led the country to violence in 2008? Is there a way the media can re-group and re-strategize on how best they should set the agenda and shape public opinion and not fall onto the whims of politicians?
We all know that conflict sells while unity or the process of resolving conflict does not sell. Could this be the reason why the media prefer to follow the agenda of politicians and not set the agenda, shape public opinion; act as watchdogs on the excesses of the first three estates – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary?
A more worrying trend as we approach the 2012 general elections is the positioning of some politicians to own TV and radio stations knowing too well the power that they wield in influencing voters. Will some media declare support for some presidential and political parties in the 2012 elections as happened during the 2007 general elections? If yes, how will the media play its role in conflict resolution by presenting information that is reliable, respects human rights and represents divergent views? Will we see a kind of media that upholds accountability and exposes malfeasance, enabling society to make well informed choices, which is a precursor of democratic governance? Will the media reduce conflict and foster human security with its owners having well known political interests?
What we have seen in the media in Kenya recently, especially during the by-elections, is the media tending to dramatize conflicts either tacitly or openly. The media has done so by focusing on irreconcilable differences between parties, persons, extreme positions and inflammatory statements, violent or threatening acts and win-or-lose outcomes. One may assume that editors work from the premise that conflict is interesting and agreement is boring. While a conflictual approach may attract listeners and sell newspapers, it impacts on the society negatively as stereotypes are ingrained in the minds of the masses.
While training of journalists, tailored to local needs is one of the most valuable instruments to keep media organizations from contributing to the escalation of conflicts, what happens to media owners, who are themselves politicians, and whose main agenda is to use propaganda against their opponents to their own advantage? How can training of journalists assist media personnel who work for media houses whose owner has openly declared support for a presidential candidate and political party?
Where does the Code and Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya published by the Media Council of Kenya come in? How are journalists expected to practice accuracy and fairness in a media station whose owner has presidential ambitions or better still the owner supports a particular presidential candidate and party? Will such a journalist be in a position to write a fair, accurate and unbiased story on matters of public interest? Will all sides and angles of the story be accurately reported or will it be in favor of the owner of the media station. Will such journalists be in a position to be independent and free from those seeking influence or control over news content? How will they gather and report news without fear or favor, and vigorously resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertisers’ sources, story, subjects, powerful individuals and special interest groups? Will they resist those who would buy or politically influence news content or who would seek to intimidate those who gather and disseminate news? Last but not least, will they determine news content solely through editorial judgment and not as the result of outside influence?
These are some of the mind boggling questions that the media in Kenya need to think about as we approach the 2012 general elections. This is urgent in view of the increasing interest by politicians to own media stations. If these issues are not reflected upon, the role of the media in promoting state stability may be negated, plunging the country into chaos like we witnessed in 2008.