There is a saying in our trade that the difference between journalists and doctors is that the latter publish their mistakes – while the doctors bury theirs.
There was a reminder of that yesterday (January 23), when the International Criminal Court in The Hague, confirmed charges against four Kenyans for their alleged role in the post-election wave of bloodletting in the country following the disputed December 2007 election.
The Pre-Trial Court ruled that Deputy Prime Minister and minister of Finance Uhuru Kenyatta, former Higher Education minister William Ruto, Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura, and Kass FM Radio programmes chief and presenter Joshua Sang should stand trial for the violence in which nearly 1,500 people were killed and another 600,000 people were displaced. Most of the IDPs have not yet been resettled.
Former Police chief Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali and former Industrialisation minister Henry Kosgey were left off the hook.
Sang was always out of place among these political heavies and rich men. One time, media reports had him worrying about how he will pay his legal fees and manage the costs of travelling up and down to The Hague for the hearings.
Sang looked such an odd man out, and seemed to be so insignificant in the overall scheme of things, that law Professor Makau Mutua penned a memorably withering column in Sunday Nation, East Africa largest circulating newspaper, speculating that the ICC would dismiss the case against him. Makau took such a dim view of Sang’s stature that in a column of about 850 words, he managed to describe him severally as “small fish”, “small fry”, “marginal”, “inconsequential” and, I think, a “no body” several times!
If the stories are to believed, Sang is the one suspect against whom there was the hardest evidence that you can touch or hear – recordings of his programme. It is a lesson that other journalists would do well to remember—their great works as well as sins are always out there in print, recordings, and video.
The Kass man’s case, “small fish” as he might be, is also the one that probably resonated most outside Kenya. There are echoes with Radio Milles Collines, which infamously fuelled the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 in which at least one million people were slaughtered. The Democratic Republic of Congo also endured the ill effects of hate radio, as did Ivory Coast.
Yet, there is a big blind spot. In Kenya, the fashion is to blame FM stations, short message services (SMS), and bloggers for inciting the hatred that led to the post-election violence (PEV) and kept it going for days. International studies of the PEV have also been fascinated by the use of new technology in that Kenyan tragedy. One of the most interesting of these perhaps being that done by the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard University (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2008/Digitally_Networked_Technology_Kenyas_Post-Election_Crisis).
However, the SMS, blogs, and FM stations were merely the scaffolding on a more troubling architecture of Kenyan politics built by a large section of the mainstream media – the newspapers and TVs (especially the commentariat and punditocrats who dominate the political talk-shows).
The mainstream media have escaped serious scrutiny partly because they have a long and prestigious history, and most of its key leaders are deeply entrenched in the Old Boy and Establishment network in Kenya, thus fairly protected.
A close scrutiny, however, paints a troubling picture of their role. The big media in Kenya like to label, and use this as a powerful tool to order the society. Shortly after President Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) came to power at the end of December 2002 (fresh from being the first opposition party in Eastern Africa to defeat a long-ruling government), a group of old political, social, and business friends quickly coalesced around him.
Nothing unusual there, as an inner circle is a perversity of nearly every African, European, Asian, or American State House. The big Kenya media dubbed the Kibaki inner circle the “Mount Kenya Mafia”. With every other day, the narrative of a dangerous “Mt. Kenya Mafia” evolved, and by the time of the election they had come to embody the Devil incarnate that must be got rid of.
This contributed to the siege mentality that took hold in Central Kenya, and fanned its insecurity about one of its own losing power in 2007.
The fractious coalition eventually collapsed in the 2005 Constitution Referendum, in which now Prime Minister Raila Odinga (then Works minister) broke ranks with Kibaki and led a rebel group of NARC ministers and MPs to oppose the constitution. They defeated the constitution in the referendum, and a wounded Kibaki struck back by sacking them.
They then formed the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), and set upon preparing to face Kibaki off in the disastrous 2007 poll. To bundle together the political capital that the ODM heavyweights had, and avoid a split before elections, Raila formed a shared leadership, the ODM Pentagon, with Ruto, Tourism minister Najib Balala, former Industralisation minister Henry Kosgey, Deputy Prime Minister and Local Government minister Musalia Mudavadi, and Cooperative Development and Marketing minister Joseph Nyagah.
Perhaps because Raila has a putschist background and Ruto was a little too vehement in his militancy, the media took to describing the ODM Pentagon in military terms as the “the ODM Brigade”.
ODM members ceased being called activists or supporters and became “troops”. The drama of a “Mt. Kenya Mafia” in a race to the death at the polls against an “ODM Brigade” and its “troops” had been written and slowly rolled on to a catastrophic end.
It was left to the commentators on TV and columnists to pour on the accelerator fuel. Respectable columnists, as early as 2004, were calling on Kibaki to deal with the cabinet with “Machiavellian firmness”. It was common to read or hear on TV references to kings and generals who killed dissidents.
The foundation for the hate speech and slash-and-burn blogging and short messaging that Kenya saw in 2007 had been well set early.
The final act that radicalised the election contest is the tradition of many mainstream Kenya media outlet to sideline what they consider as “minor” candidates. This is harmful because, in the first place, the supporters of the “minor” candidates feel rejected and become angry. Secondly, and most damaging, you could literarily see the campaigns of the “major” candidates developing the sense that they were ordained to win. Defeat was not an option.
You read the campaign coverage of that time; you wouldn’t find any reporting about the possibility of a candidate like (now) Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka pulling off an upset.
The big media then went on to largely ignore many of the early warnings of trouble. Reporters were being beaten or turned away from rallies; vans carrying newspapers were being held up and burnt; and journalists were transferring out of some areas because they were from the “wrong” tribe. Blithely, the mainstream media soldiered on as if nothing were amiss.
By November 2007 a deep sense of frustration had developed with the big media. However, unlike years past, there was a solution for those who wanted to have their voices heard– the Internet and mobile phones.
The rest, as they say, is history. In the last nearly one year in which the story of the “Ocampo Six” was big, there was no hint that the media had learnt its lessons. It (or better still WE) probably won’t, until it goes through a very public acknowledgement of error and honestly discusses its failings and culpability in 2007.
Indeed, at the height of the preliminary hearings at The Hague last year, it took an online boycott campaign and petition by Kenyans to frighten the media into turn down the volume on the “Ocampo Six” hysteria.
©Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3