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Reporting the Kenyan Elections: Five Things We Can Learn From Last Time

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'The police are caught between two tribes whose thirst for blood has not been sated' - ITV News, 28.1.08

'The appetite for bloodshed here doesn't seem to be waning' - Sky News, 29.1.08

These two references to apparent Kenyan 'blood-lust' were both made by UK journalists reporting the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. In an interview for a report I wrote at the time, ITVs foreign news editor denied that the phrase 'thirst for blood', was inappropriate; arguing, 'I think it is hard to exaggerate the brutality of some of the deaths of the people in these riots'. By contrast, another interviewee argued that it was an example of wider 'institutional racism' in the international media, in which events in Africa are reported differently to other parts of the world.

Given that the next elections in Kenya are just a few days away, now is perhaps a useful time to remind ourselves of the debates that took place five years ago about how the international media covered the elections and their aftermath. Looking back at these interviews, it seems to me there are five issues worth highlighting about coverage in 2008, which should help to inform coverage this time.

1. Look beyond tribalism: The issue of greatest concern to those interviewed for the report was the character of the early coverage of the violence and particularly the emphasis on tribalism. One British reporter who was in Kenya during the violence explained that, 'a huge amount of international press arrived who had basically come there with the question, knowing nothing about it, which tribe is fighting who? Which tribe doesn't like the others? Tell me which tribe is it? You can't [just] blame editors if the culture of journalists is 'all African conflicts are about tribes". This focus on tribalism was defended by some journalists and editors who argued that, 'the essential truth is that [there were] very stark images of people being killed with machete blows simply because they were from the wrong tribal or ethnic background. That is undeniable. It is recorded on camera. That is the brutal truth of what happened'. Other interviewees stressed the importance of highlighting alternative explanations and complexities such as the role of land rights, poverty, corruption, hopes for democracy and resource allocation. Indeed, at least some of the violence is now alleged to have been pre-planned. Yet these alternative narratives were barely evident in the early coverage.

2. You are being watched: The most serious claim made by interviewees was that certain characteristics of the international media's content could have been responsible for inciting or exacerbating some of the violence in Kenya. This claim centred around the international media naming the tribes involved in acts violence - which is something that the Kenyan media often refrain from doing for fear of fuelling further conflict. For example, a few days after the violence started the Media Council of Kenya issued a statement urging the international media to show restraint in the naming of communities involved because, they argued, 'it only goes to fuel and inflame already heightened emotions'. Moreover, at the time, international news content had taken on a particular importance because the Kenyan media was adhering to a ban on showing live coverage of events. While the suggestion that the international media was actively implicated in the spreading of violence was rejected by most of the interviewees, it did highlight to broadcasters at the time the changing nature of their audiences. As one journalist put it, 'you can no longer report only to the Western audience - the audience on the ground sees what you are doing and you can't just use them as walk on extras'.

3. Report the right time and place: Another key complaint was that out-of-date pictures were being run on a loop, suggesting that violence was ongoing when it was not, and that the language used often suggested that violence was occurring in more places than it actually was. As one journalist put it, 'some of the international media gave the impression that the whole of Kenya has been on fire for the last five or six weeks and that is very misleading. Eighty percent of the country has been largely unaffected'. Indeed, one news editor conceded that 'they have a point about the stuff on a loop, especially if you are not paying close attention to the words, and I also think that it is incumbent upon us to point out that this is happening in a relatively small geographical area of a large country. We have a responsibility to put the pictures into context, we try and do it, we don't always succeed. Everyone's fallible'.

4. Consider image and language use carefully: The international media were also warned about the use of graphic images. Wachira Waruru, who chaired the Media Council of Kenya, argued that such images, 'only serve to take away the dignity of Kenyans who are at the moment going through very hard and traumatic times'. In his interview he added that, 'when watching the news about violent acts in Europe or America you don't see dead bodies, you don't see body parts, you don't see nearly dying people. The international media should apply the same principles when covering conflict here in our country'. The language accompanying such imagery was also criticised for being sensationalist and inappropriate, particularly when comparisons were made to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In their defence, one news editor's response was that, 'we specialise in eye witness reporting. To be frank, that is as worthy if not more worthy to show the world what is really happening than it is to spend your time stroking your chin, having these intellectual debates about what's going on. The history of our profession shows that the more you are able to expose the truth - earlier on - the quicker international action is taken'.

5. There's more news than bad news: Finally, many of the interviewees at the time also commented on how news coverage focussed exclusively on the violence. The peaceful build up to the election, the orderly conduct of voting and the eventual signing of the peace deal all received minimal coverage. As one BBC journalist said, 'we know that people in African journalism were trying to get news organisations interested in the election. But there was - I am told - little interest'. This was defended by one editor who argued that, 'news is only news when something happens and I don't think our viewers would have forgiven us if we had done lengthy pieces in December about the build up to the elections'.

Of course Kenya and the international media have both changed dramatically in the last five years. Twitter, for example, which was still in its infancy in 2008, will undoubtedly play a significant role in how the elections are covered in 2013. Al Jazeera has been live streaming the Kenyan presidential debates to global audiences. Changing geo-political circumstances will also lead to events being framed in different ways, perhaps through the 'Africa Rising' narrative.

Equally, I have argued elsewhere that there is an acute lack of empirical research to support claims of the kind made above about precisely how 'badly' Africa is covered in the international media. Indeed, my own narrative here has neglected to mention the numerous examples of insightful and contextualised international coverage at the time, such as that produced by BBC's Newsnight.

Despite this, it was the case that there was a general sense of shock at how quickly and easily some of the international media appeared to revert to using trite and simplistic narratives to report on events. Indeed, the one study that has examined British coverage of the post-election violence in Kenya in detail concluded that, 'a common tendency was to rely on simple, all-encompassing descriptive and analytical language to frame the reporting of the conflict - focusing on tribal and ethnic issues to the virtual exclusion of broader and deeper analyses of factors involved'. I hope that by remembering the past, we can find ways of improving coverage in the near future.