As Kenya approaches a pivotal presidential election on March 4, the world’s media will undoubtedly focus on the spectacle of a top contender charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the ethnic violence that killed 1,200 people following the last poll, more than four years ago. Although the ethnic tensions remain and there is already an unacceptable amount of violence leading up to the vote, there is every reason to believe that this time around Kenyans will be spared the bloody riots and loss of life of the last election.
Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founder and a Deputy Prime Minister, along with his running mate William Ruto, are scheduled to go on trial in The Hague just five weeks after Kenya’s presidential contest, accused of organizing a brutal Kikuyu militia to carry out some of the worst of the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
In Kenya, political patronage and ethnic allegiance shape access to resources. At the end of December 2007, riots broke out after the government’s Electoral Commission declared President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, the winner. His challenger, Raila Odinga, claimed the ruling party stole the election through massive fraud. Live television coverage showed horrifying scenes of police brutality, enflaming the conflict. When the government banned further broadcasts of demonstrations, rumors spread through social media and informal networks. In the run-up to the election and immediately after the release of the disputed results, hate speech was broadcast on radio stations in the ethnic languages of the main candidates and of victims of violence, recalling the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
While ethnic tensions exist and continue to flare in Kenyan politics, reforms of the past four years give hope that this election will end more peacefully.
Along with necessary changes to vote counting procedures and an overhaul of the country’s judiciary, a significant change can be found in Kenya’s media.
Discredited by their role in the post-election violence, journalists for mainstream media houses and many of the vernacular radio stations have transformed the way they report the news. They revamped their code of conduct as well as their Communications Commission to regulate the broadcast industry along the lines of the BBC. They also made changes to the Media Council of Kenya, where ordinary citizens can take their grievances to an Independent Complaints Commission and where heavy fines can be imposed when a transgression has occurred.
Journalists working for vernacular radio stations were stunned when one of their own, a popular radio presenter for KASS FM, Joshua Arap Sang, was indicted in 2011 by the ICC for crimes against humanity, accused of using coded messages to coordinate attacks during his morning talk show. But in the years since the last election, media development organizations like Internews have been training key vernacular radio stations on conflict-sensitive journalism, with results that have significantly improved the professionalism of their coverage.
The Media Council of Kenya and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission now monitor radio stations, and social media watchdogs scan the Internet for hate speech or dangerous speech. Many print and broadcast media regularly engage in voter education and peace messaging while journalists continue to search for ways to absolve their guilt for allowing the media to be complicit in the violence.
Media’s role in the coming election was highlighted when candidates squared off in two live presidential debates this month, a first in Kenya’s history. Organized and funded by the media itself, the debate was broadcast simultaneously on all the country’s radio and television stations — an act of unity among commercial rivals. The debate was widely watched and discussed, and for half a day was the top global trending topic on Twitter. The candidates addressed each other cordially as “my brother” and “my sister.”
There has been a sea change in the mindsets of ordinary Kenyans that in large part is the result of government reforms and transformation of its media. We are heartened that Kenya’s next election is unlikely to provoke the extreme levels of ethnic violence that followed the last contest. On March 4, the world will be watching to see if Kenya’s media will be part of the solution.
(This op-ed in the Huffington Post was written by Internews President Emeritus and Founder, David Hoffman.)