How (not) to report on Kenya’s elections

Kenyans vote today (in some places voting have already started). And somehow, as in any election in any African country, the cliches are not far behind. “Will Kenya fall into mayhem after the results of the general elections are announced?” “Will one of (East) Africa’s most politically stable countries see a return of post-election violence that swept through the country five years ago?” “Has tribalism been eradicated in Kenya?” We can’t count how often international reporters have asked these questions in the past days. Like French soldiers in the northern Mali, journalist of every major international broadcaster and some even of tiny national news organizations have parachute landed in Kenya ahead of the general elections. Some of them, even if they won’t admit it, secretly hope to see a bit violence, albeit skirmishes. Some American outlets have taken six month old political violence and presented these as happening right now. Journalists love the rush and a little ‘war reporting’ most definitely won’t hurt the career; it looks good on a CV. Reporting ahead of Kenya’s election by the international media can basically be placed in two general categories: optimism and, of course, no surprise, pessimism. 

Both these have their ready-made storylines and characters: ‘Optimistic reporting’ looks at the dozens of grassroots peace initiatives such as the peace concert in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. And a visit to Boniface Mwangi, Kenya’s young critical visual activist, should not be forgotten see here and here.

‘Pessimistic reporting’ tends to be more ‘serious’, or at least it’s journalists taking themselves serious. With reports by human rights organizations that predict violence in hand, they demand answers of government officials. Like when leaflets promoting hate speech was found in the western city of Kisumu. In the words of the international reporters, a city that was the epicenter of the violence five years ago. Or was it Eldoret? Or the entire Rift Valley? Either or, journalists went to the city on the banks of Lake Victoria demanding an explanation by the local authorities. But an own investigation into the origins of the pamphlets, seemed a bit far-fetched. Keep in mind, a warm meal and cold Tusker beer were waiting in the four star hotel.

Then there’s CNN’s decision to do a story on those threatening to commit acts of violence during the elections. At least on paper that is. On Thursday the global news organization posted a news report entitled: ‘Armed as Kenyan vote nears’ (link to the video). Reporter Nima Elbagir ventured to the hills of the Rift Valley where she met four men basically playing around in the bushes. It’s all presented like some kind of moral panic. Anyway, the reporter talks to the leader of this so-called Kikuyu tribal militia, whose face is covered with chalk and talks about preparing for war because they want peace. Do you get it? Elbagir then interviews another man, a farmer, who lost his property in the wake of the violence in 2007. He pledges, unlike the men in the bush, not to retaliate, because he has nothing to fight for. We then cut back to the militiamen rolling around in the bushes seemingly preparing for ‘war’.

Since the news report aired,  the reaction to the report has been negative — especially by Kenyans who have responded with fury at the CNN report, poking holes in the story: who do these men represent? Who are “the tribal leaders” Elbagir allegedly spoke to? And what report by Human Rights Watch is she quoting? Kenya’s online community has since revived a popular hashtag #SomeonTellCNN. And the reactions are not mild. For example, “CNN is a disgrace to professional journalism,” @oxford92 tweeted. Someone else, @HudsonJoel wondered whether it’s possible to have CNN banned from Kenya because he doesn’t want rubbish.

Others retweeted a picture of a toddler whose face is covered with chalk with the tag saying: ‘ready for CNN’.

The Kenyan government even thinks that the video was ‘stage managed’.

Since then, CNN has responded to the row saying it’s a well-sourced story and that the story has been placed in context as potential threat of violence has been well documented by Human Rights Watch and the Kenyan Police.

It is clear that the majority of Kenya’s online community stands up against the way international broadcasters report on their country. That’s a possible story CNN might chase after the elections. But then CNN has done this before.


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