Elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. The media has a vital role in informing the public about the electoral process. The contention - and what is the most challenging task for the media - is to ensure balance and objectivity in its reporting. Parties and aspiring candidates use all means, largely the mass media, to ensure high voter turnout in areas where they have predominant support. Other political camps will aim to repress voter turnout in areas where they perceive that voters are not in their favor. Ironically, both camps use the mass media to accomplish goals that strengthen and negate the process of free and fair elections. The question that begs an answer is how the media can remain neutral and stick to its objective role without being caught between the two rival camps.

Kenya’s code of conduct and practice of journalism provides guidelines on a number of issues to ensure free, fair and accurate coverage of election campaigns including: accuracy and fairness; right of reply; letter to the editor; unnamed sources confidentiality; misrepresentation; obscenity, taste and tone in reporting; pay for news; plagiarism; discrimination; reporting ethnic, religious and sectarian conflict; recording interviews and conversations; privacy; intrusion into grief and shock; sex discrimination; financial journalism; protection of children; victims of sex crimes; use of pictures and names; innocent relatives and friends; acts of violence; editor’s responsibilities; advertisements. There are also guidelines for election coverage that have been developed by news practitioners and media owners, with the goal of facilitating free, fair and democratic elections to assist voters in making informed choices. Subjects of the guidelines include: accuracy and fairness; sources of information; figs, favors, and special treatment; role of media owners; opinion polls; hate speech and incitement; minorities; state media; private media’ separation of fact and opinion; advertorials; identification; attacks and threats; journalists and assignments; electoral processes and malpractice; informing and educating voters; human rights, political activity. Despite the existence of the Kenya’s code of conduct, qualitative and quantitative media analysis during the 2007 campaigns for the general elections revealed that there was bias in coverage of presidential candidates and political parties.

In the run up to the 2007 general elections, UNDP contracted Strategic Public Relations & Research firm to assess and measure qualitative and quantitative media reporting from September to December 2007. The exercise aimed to ensure enhanced fair and accurate media reporting on electoral issues - balance, accuracy, impartiality and fairness with a focus on equitable access to media by political parties. The media monitoring aimed to influence journalists, editors and media owners to provide accurate, impartial and fair reporting, and to encourage adherence to professional standards by journalists. By publicizing results periodically during the months preceding the election, the monitoring operation aimed to alert citizens to question their sources of information and to encourage parties and candidates to refrain from negative campaigning

The conclusion of the first monitoring report in September 2007 recognized the visibility bonus given to the incumbent President and the PNU, but judged the overall situation to be a “significant improvement in the coverage of the competing political parties and candidates.” Biases in favor of the incumbent president and his party, sitting MPs, and male candidates were highlighted. The study urged media to provide more news on underrepresented groups such as women and disabled.

The second monitoring report released at the end of October 2007 concluded that there was “extensive, preferential coverage given to the incumbent presidential candidate and the ruling party and little coverage or resources were assigned to opposition parties. The Electoral Law was criticized for being vague so that the allocation of airtime on broadcast media was very selective, as “all broadcast media monitored failed to comply with the basic obligations of balance and equitable coverage of parties and candidates.” The press was deemed to be less biased than broadcasting, though it was also described as clearly leaning towards the ruling party in its reporting.

The third report noted that across all television channels, Party of National Unity (PNU) – the president’s party - had the most coverage followed by Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), and NTV and KTN appeared to aim for some parity across the three main parties while KBC and CTV gave significantly more time to PNU than the other two parties. With respect to reporting on the presidential candidates, KBC and KTN gave more coverage to the PNU incumbent Kibaki than the others, NTV gave the most balanced coverage to all the candidates, and CTV gave the most negative coverage to Raila. The third report also offered a number of conclusions about women and elections: women were not given any special treatment in the media; there were commentaries in the media on the difficulties women face running for office; all media treated women candidates as equal to their male counterparts; and women who complained of unfair treatment were given a fair audience by the media.

In view of these extensive recommendations in the run-up to the 2007 general elections, have media owners, operators, journalists and key stakeholders reviewed them and seen how best to avoid the same pitfalls? Have the media council and media owners convened to discuss and ensure that during the general elections in 2012, the Kenya’s code of conduct will be upheld to the letter? It is urgent and imperative that these finding are reviewed keenly to ensure that the media plays a more responsible role as we approach the 2012 elections so that we do not witness the violence that occurred in 2008.