Media coverage of Kibra poll went off the mark

Friday, November 15th, 2019 07:17 |

The media in Kenya has been receiving a fair measure of criticism and deliberate delegitimisation. Although part of the attack on the Fourth Estate is unwarranted, in some instances, it had it coming. A perfect case is the recent Kibra by-election.

Could the coverage of the just-concluded poll epitomise what is wrong with media in Kenya, and thus explain why the public may have lost interest in media generally?

Did the Kibra story follow the script of elections in Kenya? A careful exploration suggests that the by-election did not follow the script to the letter, but the media is doing everything possible to make it fit the script. 

What is the script in Kenyan elections, one may ask? There is violence from day one, bribery, more violence during nominations, campaigns, and voting. Then the IEBC goofs big time during the elections, the loser contests the results and more violence follows. The media stuck strictly to this script in covering the Kibra by-election.

But a closer look suggests that matters evolved differently in Kibra. We must first acknowledge that at the national level, the Kibra election did not mean much, whatever the outcome. A win by ODM left the balance of power in Parliament the same, and a Jubilee win was not going to change the power balance significantly. The Kibra poll only mattered for purposes of bragging rights and the media, unfortunately, bought  into this.

Secondly, this election departed from the script in some significant ways. For a start, the ODM nominations were more peaceful than is norm. The party seemed to have learned from its past and did not issue a direct ticket as they are often wont to do.

During the campaigns, the interactions among the opposing caravans were more friendly than has been seen in an election before. Some media houses picked this up, but dropped that framing since it did not fit their normal frame. There were claims, particularly from ODM, that the IEBC was playing unfair tactics. This fitted the normal frame of elections and it featured quite a bit in the media. 

On election day, the reported violence was tamed by “Kibra’s standards”, something new in the counting of the votes went on -  this time there as a first of sorts - the losing candidate called the winner, conceded defeat and congratulated him early in the night. 

This should have been big news that should not be lost to Kenyans that Kibra provided us with an instance of crossing the Rubicon where a candidate recognises that there is only one winner, that he is not that winner and thus accepts defeat. But the media soon considered this story as an inconvenience and went back to the familiar frame.

The material for the familiar frame was there in the pictures of former MP Boni Khalwale carrying stones, MP Didmus Baraza losing his hat in a melee and so on. While what happened to Khalwale and Baraza is not to be condoned, the media loses the plot of the bigger story if we focus just on these.

IEBC seems to have escaped the Kibra elections largely intact, with few questioning it beyond the usual crowd.

If journalists would recall the headlines on January 1, 2018 and the commentaries that were published in the media, they were sobering and drew up the attention of not only the whole nation, but the world. The media became active in advocating for a peaceful way out of the mayhem the country was witnessing; a sobering voice calling for a way forward. Those headlines: “Save our beloved country”, “We choose peace” among others helped lower temperatures across the land. It was constructive journalism at its best. The media needs to be reminded of that, look for the unusual best in us and lead with it.

—The writer is the Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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