The place of the media in society in the run-up of events leading to the election, particularly how the election is represented to the citizens, will have far-reaching implications for post-election peace and security in Kenya. Current reports in Kenya’s mainstream media on the recent elections seem to lean towards the ruling coalition. Following the annulment of the presidential elections by the Supreme Court based on some irregularities, one would expect that the media had learned certain lessons as a custodian of the public good and would adopt a more cautious approach to reporting news about the fresh election pitching the two main presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga.
Though media coverage may be presumed to have minimal impact, considering that Kenyans have so far tended to vote along ethnic lines, voting behavior should not be taken for granted. The media can be used for political propaganda aimed at influencing public opinion particularly in the face of any expedient realignment of political forces.
Three questions regarding the media’s role are relevant: Can the Kenyan media play a decisive role in influencing the outcome of the next elections? Will they mirror the tensions and divisions within society, or can they play a constructive role? To what extent can media coverage be balanced, in ways that can influence voting patterns in the country outside of the exigent calculations of ethnic blocs and coalitions?
The ongoing contest for control of public opinion in Kenya following the Supreme Court ruling is centered on who won the just-concluded elections. While the Jubilee Party of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta maintains that it won fairly and squarely since it had the “numbers,” the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition insists that the Jubilee win was computer-generated. NASA has used the “chicken metaphor,” terming the elected Jubilee leaders vifaranga vya computer, or computer-hatched leaders (chicks)—reminiscent of “chicken-gate,” the electoral equipment procurement scandal that contributed to the controversial 2013 election. Those hotly-disputed election results were also referred to Kenya’s Supreme Court, where Kenyatta was declared the winner with a unanimous decision amidst protests by the opposition. This eventually led to the national discourse of “accept and move on,” which was to be done “for the sake of peace in Kenya.”
This time around, Kenyatta has received the Supreme Court’s annulment of the 2017 election with mixed reactions, first accepting it but then disagreeing with the ruling. Some reports have gone as far as alleging he referred to the judges as wakora, or crooks, in rallies in his political strongholds. Various local and international stakeholders have been urging him to respect the judiciary and the rule of law. This is the delicate context in which the Kenyan media will continue to cover the fresh presidential election, with implications for national cohesion, peace, and security.
The media in Kenya has an important responsibility of promoting an enabling environment for the fresh presidential elections. They should refuse to be used as a tool for spreading propaganda. One example of propaganda occurred after the Supreme Court ruling, when some media outlets carried sensational reports of opposition supporters celebrating in opposition strongholds, along with contrasting stories of the ruling coalition supporters grieving in their strongholds. Some went as far as expressing negative views about the judgment, inciting emotions that have fueled ethnic tensions and risked plunging the country into a fresh round of ethnic violence. For example, two prominent ministers from Kiambu and Machakos County were recently accused of hate speech and released on bail in a court of law. A video clip of the Kiambu minister went viral, in which he appears to be inciting members of two ethnic communities that form the Jubilee Coalition against members of NASA.
Emotions are running high over some reports arguing that since more Jubilee candidates were elected to the Twelfth Parliament than NASA candidates, then Jubilee must have won the presidential election as well. Such assertions are clearly open to debate, as the Supreme Court ruling on the presidential elections has in turn opened a floodgate of petitions from members of county assemblies, women representatives, senators, and members of Parliament, including governors across the country. According to the judiciary, thirty-one governors, fifteen senators, twelve women representatives, ninety-eight members of Parliament, and 129 members of County Assemblies will be defending their election before the courts in the course of the next six months.
So far, media coverage of the fresh presidential elections appears to be based on a familiar pattern. News coverage of the Jubilee Party’s presidential campaign continues to emphasize large numbers of supporters. The incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, is still projected by some media as the most popular presidential candidate in the country enjoying a “massive following” and the candidate to beat.
However, the ground seems to be shifting in favor of NASA challenger Raila Odinga in some ways. For example, there are reports that NASA has recently received defectors from the larger Mt. Kenya region of Embu and Meru, previously considered Jubilee strongholds. If these are true, it may be a setback for Jubilee. The defectors included a sitting governor, Peter Munya of the Party of National Unity, who has since made a “U-turn” back to Jubilee. Munya is among the thirty-one governors challenging the results of the gubernatorial elections as well.
Reference to the forthcoming repeat elections as a rerun, as opposed to a fresh election, by Jubilee stalwarts and the media—contrary to the implication of the Supreme Court ruling and the rule of law—is another point of contention raging in the media. The nature of this election as represented by the Kenyan media is therefore another subject of controversy with various sections interpreting it differently, and calling for the speedy release of the detailed reasoned Judgment by Chief Justice Maraga in order to move on. The Supreme Court released the judgment, but it is unclear whether it specified the nature of the controversial repeat presidential elections. The media should take the time to carefully study the document before publishing sensational reports that may not be based on the correct reading of the law. Care should be taken to reflect the views of all sides of the case in a balanced and non-provocative way.
The almost de facto power wielded by the mass media explains why media coverage during elections becomes an important issue. This much is explicitly captured in the Kenyan constitution in clauses related to the rights of access to information and press freedom. This partly explains why media intervention in the ongoing debates may be decisive in shaping public opinion, particularly regarding the content of reports and political messages. While some commentators are worried that certain media outlets seek to perpetuate the status quo, despite allegations of electoral malpractices leveled against Jubilee Party and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), others are of the view that such allegations are either exaggerated or unproven. Nevertheless, it appears the electorate may not radically change its opinion anytime soon regarding whom to vote for in the fresh elections. This should be a cause of concern to the media, even as it seeks to address the interests and anxieties of its audience(s).
Media coverage of the re-run of presidential elections is the elephant in the room, echoing the reality that elections in Kenya have always been a two horse-race. Just to confirm the point, the IEBC only officially announced two presidential candidates instead of all eight that originally competed in the nullified elections, prompting one of the sidelined candidates to protest the move and appeal to the Supreme Court to seek clarification. The Supreme Court referred the case to the High Court, which refused to give it a hearing.
Whichever way they are viewed, the pro-Jubilee and pro-NASA media should exercise some caution and not see fresh elections as a zero-sum game. Though it may be rather challenging in a politically-charged environment, the media should remain a neutral player in society in order to defend human rights, democracy, peace, and security in Kenya.