The editorial team of our TV and radio
debate show Sema Kenya – which returns for its third season this Sunday
– have to be some of the luckiest programme makers in Kenya.

A large chunk of
any producer’s time is spent looking for relevant, up-to-date information that
they can use to engage audiences and enrich programme content. Happily for our Sema
producers they have access to our secret weapon: R&L – aka BBC
Media Action’s Research and Learning department – who do a lot of this heavy
lifting for them.

In addition to support from the
R&L team in London, we have three R&L staff in our Nairobi office – Dr
Angela Muriithi, Sam Otieno and Norbert Aluku – who provide the editorial team
with insightful gold-dust, making Sema Kenya arguably the most
rigorously researched programme in Kenya today. 

Over the last two years the team has
conducted focus groups, rapid audience feedback sessions, national surveys and
more. They’ve sifted through a blizzard of figures, mountains of qualitative
data and performed weird and mysterious tasks such as ‘regression analysis’. (I’m
told it’s not painful.)

And it’s all to make sure
that Sema Kenya isn’t just a great programme that appeals to its audiences, but
one that also achieves its development objectives: supporting accountability in
Kenya by providing people with a platform for constructive, audience-driven

Media and Kenya’s elections 

The R&L team’s in-depth analysis
is evident in a new piece of research by Dr Angela
Muriithi and her colleague Georgina Page, which sets out to explore the role Sema
played during the Kenyan 2013 general election.  

As with all of the R&L
team’s outputs, the paper aims to not only inform our production but also
support others in our field. It’s available publicly online so others can use the data too and only last week,
Angela also presented the research at a UNDP and EC conference in Jordan which brought together more than 200 electoral
commissioners, judges and senior state officials from across the world to
discuss and share knowledge about electoral support. 

But to understand exactly why this
research is important and relevant now, we have to go back to Kenya in December

The general election that Christmas
was exciting. It was my first Kenyan election, and just as in the UK, I was
glued to the media watching and listening to results and the endless analysis
throughout the day of the vote.

What struck me was that unlike voters
in many European countries, the majority of Kenyans still clearly sufficiently
valued participation in the democratic process to stand for hours in the hot
sun, queuing to cast their vote.

Watching lines of patient voters here
is an awe-inspiring sight. It illustrates a faith in the democratic process
that I only vaguely experienced as a UK voter at my local community hall.

Sadly for Kenya, the promise of that
ballot was all too quickly extinguished.

Within hours of the voting booths closing
and the winner of the presidential race being announced, a wave of violence was
unleashed which saw over 1000 people murdered and half a million displaced.

Finger-pointing swiftly followed, with
the media taking a large portion of the blame.

Everything from mis-reporting to
hate-speech was said to have stoked the flames of the mayhem that followed the

It’s little wonder then that the 2013
election and the media’s role was so closely scrutinised.

‘Negotiating difference’

In the analysis of the media’s role
during the 2007 election, a new term entered the vocabulary: ‘negative
ethnicity’. In a country made up of more than 50 tribal groups one might expect
this to be inevitable.

However this does not explain the
previous decades of relatively peaceful co-existence.

What this briefing paper has shown
however is that Sema Kenya is helping to encourage dialogue between
disparate groups by highlighting commonalities rather than differences.

In a huge and geographically diverse
country like Kenya, providing a platform to ‘negotiate difference’ as the
researchers call it, can clearly provide some much needed social glue.

The paper doesn’t neglect to point out
however that the media’s behaviour during the 2013 election was to some extent

So chastened was it by the accusations
laid at its door after 2007’s awful events, it was said to have overcompensated
in its desire to maintain peace. This could explain why the research showed
Kenyans felt the media coverage during the election lacked depth.

Empowering effect

For me the most powerful role a
programme like Sema Kenya can play in this context is to offer a
mechanism for people to question those they elected.

The accountability agenda for Sema
is its driving force and one the programme makers work hard to

This new research shows that the
programme is helping to encourage Kenyans to expect more than just empty
promises from their leaders. It is also empowering Kenyans themselves.

An audience member at one of the
recordings explained why it is important programmes like Sema Kenya remain
in the Kenyan media landscape: “There is someone like me and you… when you
watch, it kind of inspires you to want to be like this other person. It makes
you ask yourself, if this person is participating, why am I not participating? Because
most of the time people don’t participate because they feel the political
process is for the elites.”

Before, during and after elections,
the need to stimulate debate, discussion and dialogue between Kenyans and their
leaders remains as necessary as ever.

The third series of Sema Kenya (Kenya Speaks) starts on KBC1 and BBC Swahili on
Sunday 27 April 2014.


Related links

What was
the role of the debate programme Sema Kenya in the 2013 Kenyan election?
Research briefing

Christie’s Sema Kenya blogs

Sema Kenya
on Facebook

BBC Sema
Kenya on BBC Swahili site

BBC Media
Action’s work in Kenya

Follow BBC Media Action on Twitter and

Go back to BBC
Media Action