In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, Betrayal in the City, the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don jailed for speaking his mind: "We have killed our past and are busy killing our future".
As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.
Many had already fled their homes in expectation of violence and in the capital city, Nairobi, many have not gone back to work since voting on Tuesday, leaving its normally bustling and noisy Central Business District feeling like a ghost town.
Small protests had been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centres, throughout the week, which had led to clashes with police and, regrettably, at least 5 deaths so far. Given the ongoing unrest, that figure is set to rise even further.
However, you wouldn’t know this watching most of Kenyan media -considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. TV screens are full of pictures of celebrating Kenyatta supporters and political pundits analyzing the election outcome. Kenyans are having to turn to international media and to friends and family to get a sense of what is happening.
Throughout the week, while dutifully covering the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media was in the main determined to avoid any mention of trouble. Instead, it has opted to regale the country with colorful stories of the Githeri Man, Kenya's new internet sensation.
On social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. As they have been doing the whole week, gangs of twitterbots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage and even threatening to shoot them.
Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hang on tenterhooks as politicians bickered over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.
Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of pre-empting violent protests in the event the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism”. But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.
By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop the Kenyan media houses pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for broadcasting blatantly illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election).
In return, it seems the media has sold its soul. The first sign came very soon after the closing of the polls when one TV channel, KTN NEWS, gave the results of what it called an exit poll. The curious thing about that poll was it does not seem to have asked the voters how they voted, which one would assume is the point of an exit poll.
But worse was to come. Going to bed with government seems to have led to a wholesale abandonment of their journalistic duty to independently verify the results of the election announced by the IEBC. A Court of Appeal decision in June had made it clear that results of the presidential election declared at polling stations and constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered by IEBC mandarins at the national tallying center in Nairobi. That opened the door for the media to run independent tallies and, despite largely empty government threats of having their licenses cancelled, even call the election. And indeed, many already had this capacity. In January, Samuel Macharia, the owner of Kenya’s largest TV and radio network, Royal Media Services, told the Senate that his network had independently tracked records at every presidential election since 1992.
Yet, it appears that this did not happen. Today, all the press is crowded at the national tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, hanging on every word that issues from the IEBC. They have been content to run its unofficial tallies rather than get the official counts and tallies from the lower levels. And worst of all, as the politicians and IEBC officials haggle in Nairobi over which numbers are correct, the media is happy to play along rather than spare us the drama by simply heading down to the 40,000 polling stations where, even now, the official and final results are posted outside for all to see.
Rather than preaching peace, the Kenyan media has been earning its 30 pieces of silver by ignoring and editing out citizen frustrations in order to maintain a façade of normality. But there’s nothing normal about this silencing, the delegitimization of those, however many or few they may be, who feel the need to express their discontent through peaceful marches, or by ignoring of those who have died at the hands of the police.
Imbuga’s play has an ignominious character who uses his closeness to the supreme leader to secure corrupt advantages and to sell out his countrymates. At the end of the play, Mulili’s duplicity is laid bare and he is executed, signifying the passing of the oppressive order and the birth of new hope. Similarly, Kenya’s media needs to get out of Kenyans’ way so they can get down to the business of saving their future.