Telling the story of Kenya’s elections


Eight candidates met in February, in Kenya’s first presidential debate. Photo Credit: AP.

By N G Onuoha |

Minutes before the start of Kenya’s first-ever presidential debate on February 11, Al Jazeera East Africa correspondent Peter Greste prepared for a live broadcast from a bar in the country’s capital city, Nairobi. Outside, a parked satellite truck connected Greste to Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Surrounding him were the cheers, laughter and chatter of a crowd gathered to watch the making of political history.

“Doha told me that we’ll stick with [the debate] for a little while, until they go to an ad,” Greste said in a Skype interview. In fact, the channel brought the three-hour Kenyan debate to its international audience “live for an hour and a half,” said Greste. “This, on the day that the pope announces his resignation.”

Al Jazeera’s time commitment was unusual for a media outlet outside of Kenya. Pundits and journalists have called the March 4 presidential ballot the most important in Kenyan history, but with less than a week before the polls open the story is only beginning to get serious international media attention.

And much of that attention emphasizes the possibility that the elections could spark the kind of deadly violence that engulfed Kenya after its last presidential race in 2007, when current president Mwai Kibaki’s victory sparked protests over allegations of vote rigging. The political turmoil that followed also helped inflame old tribal rivalries around land and resource disputes in some parts of Kenya. International talks led to peace and a coalition government, but not before the violence claimed more than 1,000 lives. Many more were injured, and over 350,000 Kenyans were displaced.

Five years later, that violence shadows the campaign of Uhuru Kenyatta, one of two frontrunners and the son of Kenya’s first president. Kenyatta is set to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague later this year, on charges of helping incite some of the deadly attacks after the 2007 poll. Polls show Kenyatta in a tight race with Raila Odinga, the other frontrunner, who in 2008 became Prime Minister in the coalition government, sharing power with Kibaki.

The memory of five years ago, when the election violence was an international story for weeks, dominates the narrative in many foreign media stories this election season.

“Kenya elections: reasons to be fearful” announced The Guardian last month.

“Neighbors Kill Neighbors as Kenyan Vote Stirs Old Feuds” read the headline on a February 21 New York Times story. “Every five years or so,” correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman wrote, “this stable and typically peaceful country, an oasis of development in a very poor and turbulent region, suffers a frightening transformation in which age-old grievances get stirred up, ethnically based militias are mobilized and neighbors start killing neighbors.” The reason, said Gettleman: “[E]lections, and another huge one – one of the most important in this country’s history and definitely the most complicated – is barreling this way.”

Gettleman’s piece sparked dozens of online comments, some charging the article overstated the dangers this year.

The sensitivities in writing about election-related violence are so great that an academic who studies media at Britain’s University of East Anglia posted a primer on the subject at  Huffington Post. Avoid “trite and simplistic” narratives, advised Martin Scott. An example: in a line used at the height of Kenya’s violence in early 2008, Britain’s ITV News reported that “The police are caught between two tribes whose thirst for blood has not been sated.”

“I hope that by remembering the past, we can find ways of improving coverage in the near future,” concluded Scott.

Writing about the possibility of violence is also pervasive and delicate for Kenyan media.

“I always say journalists are midwives of democracy,” said Uchenna Ekwo, a Nigerian journalist and director of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives in New York City. “The media will welcome peace in their reporting. If they involve the entire society and communicate this transition it will be a great success.”

Kenya has a wide range of media, including strong national newspapers, radio and TV channels. There are also politicized outlets: some politicians own local radio stations, and owners of some larger media outlets have ties to parties or candidates.

“There is a TV station here called K24,” said Tom Rhodes, the East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Kenyans, as a joke, call it ‘Kenyatta 24.’ If you work for them, you better be saying something nice about [presidential candidate Uhuru] Kenyatta. ”

Social media offers alternative news sources, in a country where mobile communications are widespread. During the first presidential debate earlier this month, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook received chart-topping spikes in activity. Tweets, wall posts, photographs and videos gave tech-savvy citizens access to a more diverse pool of election stories, reactions and ideas.

An effort to aggregate stories posted by ordinary voters was launched in early February by Google on a Kenya Election 2013 Youtube channel. The channel is actively curating video content from citizens across the country —similar to a channel created for Ghanaians during the country’s December elections. The non-profit crowdsourcing site Ushahidi is also participating in efforts to collect stories from across the country; its  interactive mapping programs could be used to identify crisis points during the elections.

In reporting for a foreign news organization, Greste, the Al Jazeera correspondent, said he feels the responsibility to reflect diverse perspectives on the elections, beyond narratives about tribalism and violence.

.“I’m conscious of being a doomsday reporter,” said Greste. “We try to find a mix of light and shade stories that place the election and country in context.”

When the polls open next week, Kenyan Ken Opalo will be in California, where he is a blogger and PhD candidate at Stanford University. Opalo said he follows the elections on Twitter and through Kenyan media news sites. He has also followed the reports of foreign media outlets like Al Jazeera and The New Yorker, writing a critique of their coverage in a recent blog post.

The March 4 poll will be the first under a new Kenyan constitution “with the most people-friendly bill of rights in the world,” said Opalo. “The focus on issues of fairness in the polls and security should not distract from the larger point of Kenyans’ attempt to better how they are governed through a new constitution.”