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Friday, July 28, 2017

The problem with media-organised presidential debates

The second presidential debate at Brookhouse school on February 25, 2013
The second presidential debate at Brookhouse school on February 25, 2013 / FILE

Debates Media Limited expressed shock and disappointment when they initially learnt that the two leading presidential candidates, Raila Odinga of NASA and Jubilee’s President Uhuru Kenyatta might not honour its invitation to participate in the live TV debate, which was scheduled on Monday this week.

The reasons the two candidates’ representatives gave were very similar and very valid.

First, is the issue of the setting up of DBL itself as a private sector initiative, ready to do business by organising presidential debates on live television which will, without doubt, make some substantial money from advertising.

DBL itself may, or may not, benefit tremendously from the advertising cash earned but the stations will definitely get something handsome. The TV stations are unlikely to be getting into this business as missionaries; that is unlikely to be their newfound contribution to philanthropy at election time.

Politicians know that election time is when there is a high premium to adverstise and the media falls into good times in such moments. Bring popular politicians on the screen for a verbal duel and all their supporters and detractors will no doubt be glued. Advertisers will no doubt scramble for space, definitely at a premium price. Now, begin following my trend of thought if you are still wondering where I am going.

Second, which politician will, therefore, like to be used “opportunistically” as Raphael Tuju put it? To begin with, a participant in the debate such as President Uhuru and Raila would need full disclosure about DBL: Its directors, the purpose for which the firm was set up and whether any other political entity — locally or abroad — has some interest or influence on it. These are pertinent issues that cannot be swept under the rug. DBL should be aware that sections of the public are asking these questions. Kenyans have become much more aware of their “need to know” than ever before.

Third, both Raila and Uhuru are themselves “walking television stations.” In other words, wherever they are, the media will run after them looking for news. They sell. But they have never asked any media owner to pay them royalties although they make money for them. They get something in return which is difficult to quantify — publicity. Ask yourself now, why would Raila and Uhuru risk getting some publicity whose content they are not sure of, when they know fully well that just by staying away from the debate that will itself be news? I may sound like a cynic but the question is worth asking. Swallow that and I will tell you another.

Fourth, I have talked about content, let me elaborate. In the US, where such debates have become an accepted tradition, there are some procedures that are always followed, and which are well known to both the candidates and the debate organisers. In fact, these procedures were worked on quite some time ago to the extent that they have become part of the political culture in that country. In our case, these procedures still exist in the heads, or perhaps the files, of institutions such as DBL. Advertising these procedures in the newspapers and assuming that presidential candidates will read and agree with them automatically is perhaps presumptive at best and naive at worst.

My advice would run something like this. Put in the newspapers an announcement that you would like to have an open forum on presidential debates to which all political parties are invited. Simultaneously to that announcement, write a much more detailed letter to all those who have announced intentions to be president to come and participate in the forum, or send their representatives. This should have been done early last year. It would have set the ball rolling on this discourse that would have made most candidates have a “ buy in” much earlier rather than be confronted with a fait acompli “katika kipindi cha lala salama” as we witnessed early last week.

Fifth, make sure that such open fora gradually and systematically develop the content and format of such debates. Don’t make the content and format be a sole product of an institution such as DBL. You are not manufacturing a detergent, where the scientist is the only person who knows the formula. You are dealing with a very versatile, fluid, sensitive and at times slippery social phenomenon called politics. Even the best political players don’t know where its boundaries begin or end: They are constantly seeking to keep it in control, manipulate and shape it to their advantage. Why do you think that you can thrash out “matters outstanding” in organising a debate in less than two weeks when those matters have only been isolated by you and not the key players?

Sixth, take note that the key players are not always “the key players.” While it may be easy to identify the “major candidates” as the key players, you cannot always rule out the minor candidates as not being “the key players” (please note my quotes). DBL decided on a solution that was itself part of the problem. This problem could have been sorted out much more systemically had the right procedure been adopted in the first place. But it wasn’t.

Seventh, please ask yourself the question, how useful are the presidential debates in the Kenyan context?

My honest opinion is that they are useful in so far as they provide the voters with an opportunity to see and hear their leaders discussing pertinent issues that a presidential election should deal with.

Further, they should also give journalists as well as the people the opportunity to ask the candidates questions about why they want to be president, and what they are likely to do when they get to power. Now, in the event that the candidates turn down the idea of taking part in a joint live TV debate for whatever reason, we should not cry over spilt milk: All is not lost though heaven appears to be lost. We can do the second-best thing: Invite each candidate to face a panel of questioners to ask him or her about the manifesto, plans for transforming Kenya for the better, how to deal with certain thorny issues as president and so on. The people will have the opportunity to put every candidate under the political microscope and judge for themselves. Due to time, space and viewership I would suggest we give this opportunity to the two leading candidates — Raila and Uhuru.

The Kenya Association of Manufacturers two weeks ago on Friday organised a debate between me and Governor Jack Ranguma at Acacia Hotel in Kisumu. The interview was shown widely on a few TV networks and solicited tremendous interest in the county. For those of you who may not be aware, Ranguma and I are standing for Kisumu governor Kisumu in this election. An initiative by NTV to have a rematch last Saturday did not work out because the governor had apparently travelled to Uganda.

Maybe the county government of Kisumu should, through a Bill in the County Assembly, pass an enabling legislation encouraging such debates. Such legislation should not be laced by the spice of seeking to control free speech and debate but should encourage a culture of dialogue and political hygiene in public discourse, especially during election time.

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