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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Peacebuilders: Violence, the Media, and Elections in Kenya

Securing the vote and increasing participation

The violence that attended Kenya’s 2007 elections shocked the nation’s media as well as the larger society. According to African experts interviewed in this fifth episode of Peacebuilders, Kenyan media has become both more responsible as a result and more oriented toward reaching ethnic-group audiences rather than national ones. Whether this will lead to an increase or decrease in the importance of ethnicity for Kenyan politics remains to be seen. Hosts Aaron Stanley and Scott Malcomson speak with experts from the region in this fourth episode of the Peacebuilders series.

In this episode: George Gathigi, Sharon Anyango Odhiambo

STANLEY:  Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York.  I’m Aaron Stanley.

MALCOMSON:  And I’m Scott Malcomson. In this episode, focused solely on Kenya, we are discussing elections and the media. Kenya’s elections late in 2007 and the ensuing violence brought its democracy into the international spotlight.

STANLEY:  We spoke in Nairobi with Sharon Odhiambo, the communications and outreach officer at the African Technology Policy Studies Network and a former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding fellow.

ODHIAMBO:  So in 2007, Kenyans ran for their general elections. So immediately there were two major contestants because it was soon to be a two-horse race.  One, it was between the incumbent, who was, again, vying for presidency, Mr. Mwai Kibaki; and now we had also Mr. [Raila] Odinga.  So what happened is that Kenyans woke up from all walks of life to vote. 

It was, I think, on 27th December.  So people are voting, and after voting, of course, people are anxious.  They are waiting for the results.  What happened is that, during that period of anxiousness, there was a lot of confusion among the public because you find that what was being broadcasted on the television was totally different from—okay, different television stations were broadcasting different results. 

Like if you go, let’s say, to another station, let’s say KTN, you’ll find that the tie is different from what nation is broadcasting. 

NEWS BROADCAST:  …and right now there is a gap of about, just shy of a million votes between Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki.  And Kalonzo Musyoka there with just about over 300,000 votes, as you can see on your screen right now.

We will be continuing to follow the outcome of this election.  Now, we can actually say we’ve got about 5,300,000 votes in…

ODHIAMBO:  And, then, now, the results were announced late.  The results were announced late, after three days.  So you find the anxiety was high with both rival parties, saying that they have won the election, they have won the election.  You find, when the results were announced after a long wait, about three days, the results were announced and the late—now he’s late—Samuel Kivuitu, who was the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, at that time it was called ECK—so, at that time, he declared that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was the winner.

SAMUEL KIVUITU [from a broadcast]:  Nine candidates contested this election.  The results conveyed to the commission by returning officers through the statutory form,  form 16, the one I was showing you, this form, as follows—I’m sorry, this form as follows:  Honorable Mwai Kibaki, 4,584,721…

ODHIAMBO:  The opposition, which was led by Raila Odinga, say that those results were not true, and there were a lot of rigging.  So you find that, actually, even the late ECK chairman, Mr. Samuel Kivuitu, there was a lot of pressure from inside from the locals, international community, they were telling him to take time and at least review the results because there were a lot of questions with that result. 

So you find that, even the circumstances that he announced the results were a bit suspicious because it was in a closed room, heavily guarded.  When he announced the results and declared that Kibaki was the winner, violence erupted from that time when he was announced.  There was violence that erupted from different parts of the country.

NEWS BROADCAST:  The violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley region is spreading quite fast.  This is Naivasha, about 100 kilometers west of Nairobi.  It is the latest to be hit by the ethnic violence gripping this country.

MALCOMSON:  Also joining us was George Gathigi, a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nairobi.

GATHIGI: In 2007, if you asked, nobody can tell you who won because there were so many irregularities.  So, probably, the person who has power, of course, get...  So that is the framework within which we found ourselves in ethnic violence.  What had started, so people started attacking those who were not their own co-ethnics and, of course, those who found themselves in the wrong place.  But this is not the first time.  In 1992 we had the same. In 1997 we had ethnic violence. We’ve always had this, but we’ve never had it in the magnitude of 2007. 

For us to understand 2007, we have to go back to 2002 because that is when KANU — the party of independence, Kenya African National Union — ruled from 1963 up to 2002, when we had election.  And KANU was autocratic. So come 2002, we had — since 1992, the opposition had always contested as different groups.  So 1992, we have these politicians who come together, Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga, and they win.  And, so, they decide to share power.  And, remember, these are guys who came so that they could win elections, so: the “National Rainbow Coalition”. 

But immediately after they came into power, the president could not keep his part of the bargain, so they disintegrated.  And the first step after disintegration was to try and make the new constitution.  Now, the new constitution, I think, started, the process had started in 1997, had gone through different stages, so it wasn’t being passed.  The new constitution, of course, was still being discussed and, therefore, in 2005 we had a referendum which was aimed at passing the new constitution. 

Now, in that constitution, there were a number of contentious issues about politics, about land ownership, about sexuality, about religion, and all that.  The government in power, which was National Rainbow Coalition, got divided into two.  So we had what we call the banana, which aligned to Mwai Kibaki, and a few political parties.  And, then, the Orange Movement, which was aligned to Raila Odinga.  Now, where media came in is, during the 2005 referendum—so the banana was the yes campaign, and the orange was the no campaign.

NEWS BROADCAST:  The banana versus orange symbols of the yes and no vote in the 2005 constitution referendum provided a watershed moment that inspired the birth of the Orange Movement.

GATHIGI:  So people, again, went back to their ethnic alignment, because you only get political number by appealing.  That is the way you appeal to your base.  It’s not liberal versus conservative here.  You can build that, depending on where your political kingpin is. 

And, then, in 2007, we started asking questions.  What was the role of the media?  And, yes, whereas the media, at that time, played a role, for example, providing space for discussion, the public sphere, as we would call it.  And there are many instances where they failed, where they allowed people, for example, to incite others, where they allowed insults, where some of the broadcasters got “carded”, in the discourse, and speaking ill about other people.  And these, then, within the environment that we were in, led to the conflict that we had.

ODHIAMBO:  The new regime came in in 2002 so, now, that’s when we started enjoying the freedom of expression.  So that’s the time when we find that a lot of these vernacular  media radio stations are now coming up.  There was a lot of, as George said, most of the people who were recruited were not people who were, let’s say, in that profession, but somebody who can, at least, attract an audience and can communicate well with the audience from that ethnic community.

GATHIGI:  Media freedom and political freedom always work in parallel.  So if media freedom is here, political freedom is here.  Up to 1990 when we were a single-party state, we had only, basically, a national broadcaster, KANU and, then, a few international broadcasters, VOA, BBC, Radio Netherlands, which were only broadcasting within limited range.  The government, or the party in power, had a stranglehold of the media. 

They broadcasted mainly in, the broadcasts were from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight.  We had what we called the general service, broadcasting in English and, then, the Swahili service, broadcasting in Swahili.  And, then, we had a host of other stations.  For example, we had the central station, the western station, or the northeastern station, where they would amalgamate different languages and, then, only broadcast for about two hours.  They would do news and a few programs.

When we had liberalization in the ‘90s—I think the first private radio came up in 1994—then the people who came in to seize this space were the political class.  And what they did is they started urban broadcasting.  So they had urban radio, but because—even though we had become multi-party, there was still, the government was still the same, the same person in power.  We were still autocratic.  So what these stations did, they went for the content that was safe, so they broadcasted entertainment. 

MALCOMSON:  But that was still mainly in Swahili and English at that point, and more urban in 1992?

GATHIGI:  Yeah, 1994.

MALCOMSON:  1994, sorry.

GATHIGI:  It’s 1994 up to 1997, we had many English stations, only one Swahili station came up, Radio Citizen.  So that station is the one that started asking a lot of questions, but they would be pulled off air.  They would be attacked a number of times.  So it’s only in 1997 that we had the first local radio station, and it was a Kikuyu station.  I know by 2005 we only had three languages, three local languages, that were broadcasting.  So it has been—

MALCOMSON:  [Interposing] Kikuyu, Luo and—

GATHIGI:  —Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin, which translates, actually, to, who has the political power and who is in power.  Now, in Kenya the political class is the economic class.  Economic class is, or the political class, own most of the media.  So after liberalization, the people who came to own the media were, basically, the political class. 

So you can understand why they would align themselves because their interests are not only in media, but they are also in other businesses.  And, usually, government is one of the biggest business partners. So everything, I think, is interrelated. It’s cyclical. These local language stations, then, of course, now, started getting into the rural areas because a lot of listeners, people who speak the local languages, are mainly in the rural areas.

ODHIAMBO:  Here in Kenya we have a lot of vernacular stations, so you find that each tribe at least has its own radio that they can listen to news.  You find the people mostly in the rural areas, most of them, you’ll find, they’ll prefer the radio because the social media — we can’t assume that everybody in the rural areas have a smartphone.  So you find that most of these people will tend to lean towards the radio.

GATHIGI:  In terms of influence, social media doesn’t get anywhere. 

MALCOMSON:  When you say “influence,” what kind of influence?

GATHIGI:  In terms of, for example, deciding, influencing who gets voted in, in terms of getting that buy-in from the people.  Social media, yes, will give you—you’ll have all the millions of followers and all these conversations that are trending.  But people who, for example, have used social media as their main communication platform, they have done terribly during elections. 

The flip side is people who have, the radio broadcasters from local languages, they have done extremely well, even when they have no resources, even when they don’t have the political clout.  There is a connection that radio, for example, is always able to make, and that has to do with the kind of conversations that local radio has and the connection with the people.

MALCOMSON:  It sounds as though there’s, if you take media as a whole in Kenya, including the vernacular radio stations, then it seems as if the general trend has been towards a kind of, in effect, ethnicization of journalistic content from the overall point of view.  But what, if any, are the trends in media away from that?  What are the counter-trends to the ethnicization that’s been an aspect, particularly, of vernacular radio media?

ODHIAMBO:  The media plus the relevant stakeholders did a good job as we headed towards 2013 because it was a time to refer to the mistakes journalist media houses had done in 2007 so that in 2013, at least, we prevent a repeat of what happened in 2007.  Some of the things that came up is that there was a lot of training, especially to the journalists and also to the newsrooms. These trainings were immediately conducted by the media houses.  So journalists were being taught on how to report professionally and also how to report on elections. 

We also had a situation whereby, in 2007, as there were those journalists who were not qualified.  So, at this point, journalists, most of them, had gone to school, and they were being taught on how to report professionally.  Also among the most important training was, there was also training for correspondents because you’ll find the correspondents are the ones who are mostly in the field collecting information.  They were also being taught on how to report responsibly.

And, then, another great thing that happened is that you find that even TV hosts because, especially with the vernacular stations, you find it’s live when people call.  So you find they were also taught on how to control the people who are calling.  If there’s a caller who is saying information that might, let’s say, instigate violence or something, you find that the radio host will, at least, control that person and say, “No, we can’t talk about that in the radio.”  You find they were more responsible when it comes to reporting.

STANLEY:  There was one thing that both of you have written about, and I think it ties into some of the security aspects that we were talking about earlier, and it’s the self-censorship aspect of it.  And, so, in addition to, Sharon, what you’ve just mentioned, it seems like there was also a internal media atmosphere that was very wary of being an instigator of conflict in the 2013 elections.  How did that play out?

GATHIGI:  Media in Kenya has — there are so many strings that are attached that it’s so easy to instigate self-censorship, because either you are looking for business, and then the competition is just cutthroat. So the value is make sure that they cater for their interests.  But I think, also in terms of toning the kind of rhetoric that we had, the dangerous rhetoric we had, had to do with the International Criminal Court.

NEWS BROADCAST:  The International Criminal Court has ruled that judges need to reconsider the Kenyan case before the ICC before re-opening or dismissing the case in totality.

GATHIGI:  And, so, I think people realized that there could be implications if you are caught on the wrong side.  I think that is the other thing that happened.  But I think, also, because in 2010—of course, after 2008 we got the 2010 constitution and, then, after 2013 election we had what we call the devolved units, where we have now 47 counties, and every county has its own governance.  A lot of conversations, of course, had to move from the national stage to the local stage. 

So for the local-language stations, there was that obvious demand that you are going to look at issues that are within the locality.  And, then, that means you are coming head-to-head with your co-ethnics.

So devolution to an extent does de-ethnicize the conversation because if I have to ask the question, then I have to ask the question to my co-ethnic.  Remember, I was saying 2005 we had the first referendum.  So the second referendum was done in 2000 and—what’s, 2000 and…?

ODHIAMBO:  2010.

GATHIGI:  2010.  And, so, Kenyans overwhelmingly passed the new constitution.  Within the framework of government, because we had centralized government in the beginning, we have now two-tier government where you have the central government and, then, you have the devolved units.  Then, people stopped to look at the national government as the sole determinant of the governance issue, to the local level.  So we had conversations, then, going down to the local level building the last election because, then, there were questions to be answered.

NEWS BROADCAST:  Devolved system of government is enshrined in Kenya’s 2010 constitution, and after the 2013 general election, it was a new chapter in Kenya’s history, the journey of devolution.  It has been a work of about four years since the county governments came into being.  But how much do Kenyans know about the two levels of governance?

GATHIGI:  And that changed the way we cover politics.  So the question of censorship also, I think, part of it was deliberate, I think, because there have been these conversations that we have to avoid a repeat of what happened and so on.  But I think, for me, the question is—because, when we talk about censorship, then we talk more about the competition perspective—I think, for me, the biggest question is whether media has been asking the questions that they need to be asking.  Are they asking questions that have to do with the plight of the people?

ODHIAMBO:  Well, I also think, in these elections, the 2017, a lot of politicians really tried to communicate with their audiences through the social media because you find the media voting bloc is for the youth. And these youth, you can engage them mostly through the social media.  So you’ll find most politicians were keeping their supporters through the social media. 

Sometimes they’ll have the Facebook chat—there’s one that the president had—so that it gives him an opportunity, at least, to engage with the young people.  When they go for campaigns, also, they are able to post what happens on social media which, to me, I think, it’s also good because you know with the social media, there’s that interaction, at least to get feedback on what people want you to do, what people don’t like about you, and maybe a strategy that you can change.

MALCOMSON: Next week we will be discussing the past and future of South Sudan. Peacebuilders is produced by Matt Fidler for Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.