Kenya is headed to another potentially explosive general election. Given the already charged political atmosphere, there are genuine fears of another round of ethnically-motivated violence such as the one witnessed after the 2007 polls. Hassan Kulundu explores what media can do to reduce the tension.
During one of the interactive Agenda Kenya programmes aired on NTV, a community leader from Nairobi’s Kibera slums said that many residents have resolved to vacate the area as the election date nears because they fear there could be recurrence of poll-related violence. Already some violence thought to be connected to the forthcoming poll has been experienced in Isiolo, Moyale and Muhoroni, and is taking on a familiar trajectory that usually sees this kind of violence spill over to other parts of the country.
But how is the media reporting these pockets of violence? Are the proper dynamics behind the violence being analysed, and is the media reporting about it in a manner that would not inflame passions?
By not being critical and not asking the right questions about certain issues, the media is likely to make things worse ahead of the next poll. When the Muhoroni violence erupted in late February, it had all the hallmarks of political instigation. But the media was initially reluctant to identify the cause of the violence and place the blame where it belongs.
For instance, KTN had the opportunity to report the violence more comprehensively
because they have a better presence on the ground. However, while the station did a good job of showing clips of armed youth roaming the troubled area with houses and sugarcane plantations set on fire, the KTN correspondent was surprisingly ‘unable’ to confirm any reports of human
casualties — yet Citizen TV, NTV and various FM stations were busy reporting at least five deaths and scores of families displaced in the initial days of the flare-up.
The moment the media gives conflicting accounts of a tense situation, it leads to confusion and escalation of the conflict because victims of such violence begin to feel that someone is trying to deliberately obfuscate their plight. And the moment such a feeling sets in, those who feel aggrieved
most tend to feel conspired against and may resort to retaliation in order to get even, thus escalating the conflict.
The media should, therefore, endeavour to ensure that they are not the creators of the confusion that may cause people in a conflict situation to lose faith in dialogue. Kenyan media was blamed for being part of the confusion that resulted in the post-election violence of 2008. During the tallying of the presidential election results, all was well until different radio and television stations started posting conflicting results, thus causing the confusion and suspicion that resulted in the violence.
Hence, as Kenya gears up for another round of hotly contested elections, the media should be careful to ensure its coverage of issues does not escalate already tense situations. This is where the media will have to adopt some conflict-sensitive journalism.
The violence that recently rocked Isiolo, Moyale and Marsabit also exposed how an uncritical media can sometimes allow perpetrators of violence to get away with their crimes. As far as the Isiolo violence was concerned, mainstream Kenyan media took the usual approach of sending television crews from Nairobi to cover it — but they all got it wrong.
When the violence first flared-up in Isiolo in October last year, the mainstream media houses namely Nation Media Group, The Standard Group and Royal Media Services dispatched television crews to the region. As usual, the crews were dispatched on the invitation of senior political and security officers who had also been dispatched from Nairobi to ‘assess’ the situation on the ground. This meant that what most of the news gathered during that ‘fact-finding’ mission was ad hoc — with ‘embedded’ reporters from Nairobi glossing over the causes of the violence.
Worse still, the violence erupted in Isiolo at a time when the Kenyan military had just crossed over into Somalia, so most attention was given to Operation Linda Nchi at the expense of the violence in Isiolo.
Nonetheless, the common narrative streaming out of the news channels about the cause of the violence was “inter-ethnic feuds” over scarce resources, that is, water and pastures.
Well, as much as feuds over shared resources, especially water and pastures, have been the cause of violent conflict in the nomadic regions of Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale, this time the conflict in Isiolo could not have not have been over the traditional grievances.
But when the uncritical media crews from Nairobi went to cover the latest conflict,
it was just a matter of them filling-in the blank spaces as to what was the cause of this conflict. The reporters, surprisingly, failed to notice that at the height of the conflict in Isiolo, the region was experiencing heavy rains that had even led to deadly flooding.
Hence, if the journalists and their editors had been critical in their coverage of the conflict, they would have asked the simple question: Why would the feuding communities fight over water and pastures at a time of plenty of rain?
The answer to this question would have simply rendered the traditional narrative about ‘scarce resources’ redundant, and prompted the media to probe for other causes of the conflict. It had to take the ‘fury’ of Livestock Minister Dr Muhammad Kuti, who is also the MP for Isiolo North, to spill the beans on the real causes of the latest conflict in Isiolo.
Frustrated by the poor response by security officers, Dr Kuti blamed it on the quest for political supremacy in view of the forthcoming county government structure and the expected infrastructure developments earmarked for the region.
It is only after Dr Kuti introduced the political angle that the Kenyan media picked it up and started running with it — meaning that the media had failed miserably in its agenda-setting role as far as covering the conflict in Isiolo is concerned. For a brief moment, the media started to analyse the correct causes of the conflict in Isiolo, citing the infrastructural developments earmarked for Isiolo Town under the Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) as contributing factors to the violence in Isiolo.
The LAPSSET project will involve construction of a port at Manda Bay, standard gauge railway line to Juba, road network, oil pipelines to Southern Sudan and Ethiopia, oil refinery at Bargoni, three airports and three resort cities (Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana shores).
The project was initially conceived in 1975 but never took off due to various reasons. The project was later revived and included in Kenya’s Vision 2030 and was estimated to cost US $16 Billion in 2009.
Some projects like the Isiolo-Merille projects began in 2007 and at the peak of the project, between 2013 and 2018, it is expected that the Kenyan government will be spending about 16 percent of its annual budget on the project. Key towns in the project are Lamu and Isiolo in Kenya, Juba in South Sudan and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The project is set to transform Isiolo into a modern town thus prompting intense speculation on the value of land and other properties. There are, therefore, no prizes for guessing why some people would want to gain advantage over others in the face of this anticipated economic boom in Isiolo.
It had to take the chairman of the Isiolo peace committee, a Mr Golicha, to put the story into perspective for the media. Said Golicha: “Most, if not all, land around Isiolo town is still trust land, meaning that local people do not have private ownership of this land. But given the transformation that the LAPSSET project is bound to bring to Isiolo, powerful people have been secretly trying to convert trust land into private land in order to cash in on the boom that infrastructure development in bound to bring. The people have, therefore, taken up arms against each other in order to ensure they protect what they think is their land. In fact, it is a free for all scramble as people try to mark their own boundaries in a manner they know best.”
It is, therefore, clear that the media did an injustice to the conflict in Isiolo by missing the story in the first place — had the media been critical enough and asked the correct questions, the government and other stakeholders in peace would most likely have taken the appropriate steps to deal with the violence before it claimed many lives.
But as much as the media now seems to have the finger on the pulse of the recent conflict in Isiolo, with KTN later running a more comprehensive feature story on the conflict, it have still failed to connect the dots between the conflict in Isiolo and that in Moyale.
The media have done a great disservice to Kenyans by failing to analyze the anatomy of violence in this region. In an attempt to appear conflict sensitive, the media have coined a meaningless phrase that the violence pits “one community against another community” without naming the communities involved. But this is a pathetic way of being conflict sensitive because it does not help resolve the conflict and neither does it help the audience understand the magnitude of the conflict.
It is important for the media to be bold enough to help Kenyans understand conflict by unmasking ethnicities involved without fanning the conflict. Isiolo is a cosmopolitan settlement bringing together mainly Samburu, Borana, Somali and Rendile communities who form the core of indigenous people.
These communities have similar socio-economic interests but conflicting political persuasions. Hence, when the media covers the conflict in this region, they should be able to help their audiences understand the ethnic dynamics and relations in the conflict area so that proper solutions can be developed. Not mentioning the names of the feuding communities in the name of being conflict-sensitive does not help anything —instead it only renders the conflict far much removed and isolated from the rest of Kenyans.
The first attempt to seek an all-inclusive, all-round solution to the conflict in this region was made in 2006, but the attempt failed when the leaders who were to pioneer the process perished in a plane crash in Marsabit when the Kenya Air Force aircraft they were travelling in ploughed into a cliff as it attempted to land in poor weather in Marsabit town on April 10, 2006.
To better understand the nature of the conflict in the areas between Isiolo, Laisamis, Marsabit and Moyale, the Kenyan media should learn to probe history and benefit from it. The question the media should be asking in view of the recent conflict in Isiolo and Moyale is: What was the mission that claimed the lives of Dr Bonaya Godana (former MP for North Horr), Dr Guracha Galgalo (former MP for Moyale), Titus Ngoyoni (former MP for Laisamis), Abdi Sasura (former MP for Saku) and Mirugi Kariuki (former assistant minister for internal security and MP for Nakuru Town) intended to achieve?
It is the duty of the media to make such follow-ups for institutional memory. But the Kenyan media seems to have failed in this area and that is why they are groping in the dark as far as the present conflict is concerned.
The point to be driven home is that Kenyan media should learn to be critical when covering the various conflicts across the country, and as Kenyans go to a general election in 2012 or 2013, a proper analysis of the issues that cause conflict should be attempted in order to contribute to finding effective solutions.
The media cannot afford to gloss-over issues and feed audiences with the usual stereotypes about the cause of conflict. Proper questions should be asked, critical analyses undertaken and authorities challenged to seek sustainable solutions. In this regard, media should be in a position to identify and understand social dynamics that could lead to violence in the electioneering
period and attempt to play a positive role in preventing conflict.
Hence, how should journalists handle conflict? What must they do to address conflict in reporting? One of the most important things to take place is communication. For two sides in a conflict to move towards a non-violent resolution, they must first talk, and this is where conflict-sensitive journalism comes in.
It is, however, important to point out that when a society is threatened by violent conflict, journalism faces greater difficulties because opposing sides seek to control the media. But this is also when good journalism is most important. To provide reliable information to the public in an ethnically-divided society like Kenya requires additional journalism skills. Reporters need to understand more about what causes conflict, and how conflict develops and ends. Reporters need to know where to look for these causes and solutions. By providing this information, journalism makes the public far more well-informed about the conflict beneath the violence, and can assist in resolving it.