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September 21, 2017

The media and the car crash that was the 2017 General Election

Journalists at work. /JOSEPH NDUNDA
Journalists at work. /JOSEPH NDUNDA

There is a feeling that is gathering momentum in news organisations and among consumers that the media let itself and its many audiences down in the campaign for, during and in the still unravelling aftermath of the 12th General Election.

As was the case at the 11th General Election campaign, when the peace message was emphasized above all others, the event being the first polls since the post-election violence and displacement of 2007, the emphasis was on playing an evenhanded role to the point of self-censorship.

A pro-ruling party Jubilee Op-Ed had to be balanced with an Opposition NASA Op-Ed. And there was something else the Kenyan media did not have to factor in, in 2007 — the phenomenon of fake news. It existed, even as long ago as the first multiparty General Election in 1992, the first pluralist polls in Kenya for 25 years up to that point. The Kanu Briefs project published on a weekly basis by the Kenya Times newspaper, organ of the then ruling party the Kenya African National Union, ran the secret lives of the Opposition leaders from the period before Independence, through their years in power and the aftermath written by brilliant propagandists who left the subjects and other Kenyans and their observers intrigued and, or bemused.

When the Kanu Briefs described Opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s tenure as the powerful founding Minister for Home Affairs in the 1960s, giving colonial era White officials deportation orders with only a seven-hour window, Odinga appealed to President Moi himself to rein in the editors and writers of the weekly pullout.

In a post-election violence crisis scholarly analysis entitled “Media, Elections and Political Violence in Eastern Africa: Towards a Comparative Framework”, Nicole Stremlau and Monroe Price spoke of , “understanding why election violence occurred after some elections, what the role of the media was in either exacerbating or resolving disputes, and what this suggests about the broader political project and the state of the media in the countries under examination.

. . . As a way of furthering research in this area, this report suggests three ways of analyzing the role of the media can play in post-election violence: 1) as an amplifier, facilitating and accelerating the spread of messages that both encourage violence or appeal for peaceful resolutions; 2) as a mirror, offering either an accurate or somewhat distorted reflection of the state and nation-building process; and 3) as an enabler, contributing to the process of nation-building. We conclude by offering media policy recommendations.”

These three fears of being perceived to be an amplifier, a mirror or an enabler of violent post-election outcomes severely restrict media policy recommendations and practice. No one wants to share in the terrible legacy of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which drove the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.

This Annenberg-Oxford Occasional Paper in Communications Policy Research is quite right. Ten years after the PEV of 2007, Kenyan media live in mortal fear of being perceived in this manner.

The Globe and Mail newspaper, Canada’s most widely read paper, in a piece headlined “Shouldn’t a newspaper be objective and not take sides?” commented, “We realize this is a confusing issue for readers. Above all, The Globe and Mail seeks to arm our readers with information, insight and analysis that will help them make their own decisions. To do this, we leverage various parts of our organization:

The editorial board represents The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail stands for certain values. We believe we have a responsibility to share our opinions about matters of public import and we do this daily in our editorials.

The news pages represent the facts on the ground. Our news reporting team is solely concerned with the collection and dissemination of facts as they see them.

Our columnists, however, are independent from both the news reporting team and the editorial board. They’re free to argue for or against any candidate or policy and quite often have opinions that differ from those of our editorial board.”

This is a point of view that is subscribed to by a very large number of newspapers around the world, including in Kenya. But the 12th General Election was so bizarre that no less an Editorial Board than that of the venerable New York Times criticized former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s rejection of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reelection as announced by the IEBC. The NYT criticized Raila harshly, but wrote another leader after the September 1 ruling, saying, among other things, “The ruling was also a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats — and to this page — who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the Aug. 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.

The fears were real, but the rush to judgment overlooked, among other things, that the supervisor of a new electronic voting system, Christopher Chege Msando, had been murdered and apparently tortured days before the election.

The six-judge Supreme Court, acting on a petition from the challenger, Raila Odinga, ruled that the breakdown of the system in which ballots were to be transferred to a publicly accessible online site rendered the results of the presidential election “invalid, null and void” and ordered another election within 60 days. The court said the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which was in charge of the vote, committed ‘irregularities and illegalities’ in the transmission of results and on other issues. The elections to fill another 1,880 posts were left in force.”

This correspondent cannot recall the NYT Editorial Board withdrawing a comment. The election irregularities and illegalities pointed out by the majority of Supreme Court justices could well have been noted and publicized by a Kenyan media community that was not petrified by being seen to do anything outside political correctness. The ignorance of international election observers who had no idea what forms 34A and 34B are for could have been caught long before voting began by any number of media platforms engaged in serious interviews on both sides of the political divide.

The most important thing of all – the question did any of these infringements adversely impact the outcome of the Presidential polls? – is also within media purview to answer, but only granted an independent sector that researches its findings.

As the Star reported yesterday, the European Union chief election observer, Marietje Schaake, denied media reports that they approved the August 8 General Election in its entirety.

“Schaake said her statement did not in any way endorse the result. Schaake also criticized the media for not looking deeper the statement they made.

. . . ‘I think it is important to look beyond the headlines the media was looking for, because our preliminary reports was 15 pages, out of which only one sentence was quoted,’ she said.”

Going forward, a number of media organisations with genuinely national outreach – even if only the biggest three, the Nation Media Group, the Standard Media Group and Royal Media Services – should get together and tally the Presidential vote as well as call it.

According to the New York Times in a piece sub-headed “How does the Times call the winner of primary races?”, “We rely on The A.P.’s calls. This is how The A.P. describes its process for calling races:

The responsibility for calling races rests with experienced staff in each state. They are armed with on-the-ground knowledge that no other national news organization can match. Plus, they have information on demographics, absentee and other voting history and political issues that may affect the outcome of races they must call. On election night, they are assisted by experts in A.P.’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A ‘decision desk’ in Washington, headed by the Washington bureau chief, has the final signoff on all top-of-the-ticket calls.”

This is a highly sophisticated and vast system. No media organization or combination of them can approach the role the A.P. has in America in Kenya.

With the Presidential polls adjudged to have been “invalid, null and void” by the highest court, Kenya needs to analyse, report and criticize the way elections are organized and managed in many different ways – as well as how media cover these events in reportage, opinion and analyses.

How, for instance, can the Presidential polls have been a nullity while the results of all five other elections remained valid? Using the September 1 annulment as a precedent, more than 119 other candidates who were declared to have lost on August 8 have appealed the results in the High Court and other courts, including former Cabinet minister Martha Karua, who lost against former Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru in the race for Kirinyaga governor.

Also suing is former MP Wavinya Ndeti, who lost to Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua.

On Wednesday, the Star reported on Karua’s move to court with former MP Gitobu Imanyara as her lawyer. Under the headline “Waiguru’s 58.000 votes illegally added through KIEMS – Karua”. The former Gichugu MP made a remarkable charge, which the Star reported as “She said the Supreme Court ruling nullifying the presidential election set the precedent for petitions for other positions, including governors, senators and MPs.

The court said the election was marred by illegalities and irregularities that undermined the integrity of the outcome.

Imanyara told journalists after they filed the petition, ‘This election was held on the same day. The IEBC conducted the election as one. It was held simultaneously’.”

Karua will move to the High Court on Friday to have the court nullify Waiguru’s victory based on a preliminary point in line with the finding of the apex court.”

Imanyara’s remarks are remarkable, calling the Presidential polls and the other five elections countrywide one event – and saying it is indivisible when it comes to a rerun.

What the Kenyan media must do now is interrogate the Karua-Imanyara claim, which is basically the same narrative as NASA’s – that the incumbent Jubilee regime’s top leaders and strategists stole Kenya’s biggest ever General Election and were caught at it.

A senior Jubilee strategist who wishes to remain unnamed told this correspondent that from Jubilee’s corner the issue is not the accusation of a gargantuan electoral theft but a question of the integrity of the voter and the Supreme Court ought to have ordered a recount of the vote, not repealed the result.

“The voters’ only duty is to vote and the IEBC’s responsibility was to count, tally and announce. The IEBC failed, but that does not throw back the responsibility to the voter to vote again. The court should have ordered a recount.

“NASA lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee spoke of a ‘Bermuda Triangle’ in Bomas where the original constituency tallying forms 34B were disappearing, but he gave no evidence who stole them at the constituency source or on arrival at Bomas. Why could the court have allowed copies or uploaded forms on the KIEMS machines used as verified documents? Jubilee has said most of the missing forms 34B were in the NASA strongholds, including Coast and even Nyando constituency in Nyanza. Was this an act of sabotage against the IEBC?”

The strategist also said, “the four judges must be struggling to write a ruling because this could open a barrage of petitions [already happening with at the very least 119 cases] in the lower courts for the other elected seats of Senator, Governor, MP, Woman Rep and MCA. The 2013 Supreme Court focussed on presenting clear evidence, while this petition is about questioning the process after the voting. The court’s hands have been tied on ordering vote recounts”.

He went on: “Kenyan elections are manual. It’s only transmission that is partly electronic, because the original forms still have to arrive at the national tallying centre in Bomas.

“NASA and civil society fought hard legal battles to get the laws in place to make the announcements of results final, yet they now place the burden on the chairman of the IEBC to be the final word on elections.

“NASA always sung loudest about electronic elections, but now their key point of argument is a physical Form 34B.

“The irony of it all”.

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