One would think that actively promoting the values of peace in a country that is well known for its volatile inter-ethnic relationships would be hailed as a great service. And it well might have been, if the Kenyan media had not acted too out of character. Typically characterised as one of the most critical media in the East African region, they seem to have disappointed this time round.

By Christine Bukania:

The Kenyan general elections were held on 4 March 2013. It was the first time that elections were held under a new constitution that was promulgated in 2010, and the first time that the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission used a large scale electronic voting system. Right from the nominations, questions had already emerged regarding the fairness of the elections. Controversy dogged the vote counting process. When the final tally was done, the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won with a small margin, garnering 50.07 percent to the runner-up Raila Odinga’s 43 percent. A petition by Raila Odinga was subsequently thrown out by the Supreme Court.

It would be wrong to claim that the Kenyan media turned a completely blind eye to these events. Indeed, there were reports on the poor preparation by IEBC, the systems malfunctions and irregularities in some voter stations, just to mention a few. Rather, it is their reluctance to pursue these events, to enrich their reports with investigative depth and well-rounded analysis that has left many wondering if they deliberately decided to abdicate their watchdog function.

This has exposed them to sharp criticism, predominantly from civil society organizations and the international media who have bitterly lamented the replacement of Kenya’s feisty media with a docile substitute. While denying that they exercised self-censorship, various media players have confirmed that there was general agreement to take precautions against inciting politically motivated violence.

Self-censorship refers to the practice through which individuals and the media censor themselves without the influence of any government control. Often, it occurs out of a desire to avoid discourse that is politically sensitive or which runs counter to the established social norms and values. Media are corporate entities with a duty to their shareholders. Sometimes, the choice to avoid some storylines is influenced by these market dynamics. Self-censorship is subtle but insidious. On the surface of it, the storylines that are selected are absolutely credible and in line with journalistic values and standards. It is not synonymous with partiality, but simplifying story elements and emphasising certain elements over others can lead to biased reporting and skew people’s perception.

There is another elegant way to explain this phenomenon – Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory.  It is a model that explains the process of public opinion formation and consensus building. In summary, people form opinions based on what they consider to be the majority view in a public debate. In order to avoid being isolated, there is almost always an overwhelming tendency to conform to what is considered socially and politically correct.

Those who do not share the majority view will keep their opinions to themselves for the same reason, and with time, the majority view will be amplified while the dissenting view will withdraw into the background. In a manner of speaking, this is how consensus is won. The news media play an important role in this process of public opinion forming, because in addition to the immediate social environment, it is the primary source of information on what the majority view on a public issue is.

Now, to analyse the Kenyan elections of 2013 in the context of the spiral of silence, one must turn the wheel about six years back to 2007. After the hotly contested elections ended in violent conflict that left around 1,300 people dead and thousands displaced, the media was criticized by a wide range of local and international organizations for “irresponsible coverage” and spreading “hate speech” instead of “preaching peace”. Finally, when Kenya decided to involve the International Criminal Court in investigating the matter, one of the people accused of directly contributing to violent outbreaks was a journalist.

By the time the country started talking about the next elections, the Kenyan public had decided that the role of the media during electioneering should be that of peace advocates. The same public was on high alert for any media reports that went against the general grain of peace reporting. This was evident by their social media campaigns against some foreign media houses. To be fair, the protests against foreign media were levelled more towards their penchant for anticipating the most negative outcome, but it also reinforces the argument of the formation of a new norm regarding the role of the media.

It is not a wonder that in such a situation, people found themselves confronted with a media gone hyper-patriotic and flying banners of peace and love. What is surprising is that the media chose to conform to this norm and temporarily forgot their dedication to bring the full uncensored truth to the people.

Kiprono Kittony, the Chairperson of the Kenya Media Owners Association has defended the media against censure and pointed a finger at the IEBC, whose failures to run a flawless election had nothing to do with the media. Nevertheless, judging by the editors’ meeting that was convened in July 2013 to discuss their performance during the election period, it appears the self-censorship claim has hit a nerve.

The jury is still out on this. One thing seems certain: there was political and public consensus that peace prevails, and the media played a central role in advancing this agenda. As a consequence however, they did not fulfil their responsibility of satisfying the public’s information needs. Consensus often implies a certain degree of partiality. For example, if the majority view was that the weaknesses in the electoral process were not serious enough to warrant a more detailed coverage by the media, the minority who feel their democratic right to a free and fair election had not been fulfilled. If anything, this kind of partiality probably only reduces the vibrancy of discourse that could change public opinion.

The media in Kenya has over the years gained the space to exercise their trade freely and independently. The country has no shortage of skilled journalists, among them top-rated award winners with international credits to their names. If they listen to the critical voice without being overly defensive, they might hear that it is time for them to attain one additional attribute: the understanding that democratic maturity will be attained when Kenyans can get uncensored information and use it to effect peaceful and positive political change.

Finally, if the media, who have served as the country’s public watchdog during the most difficult political times start self-censoring now, they will be doing a great disservice to the people of Kenya and eroding the confidence and trust that has made them so well-respected in the region.