Monday, April 1, 2013

Kenya's peace journalists come under fire

Kenyan media generally practiced peace journalism in the aftermath of the March elections this year, according to observers as well as a small study conducted by peace journalism students at Park University. Yet interestingly, Kenyan media have come under fire for utilizing this style of reporting.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) wrote, “Some critics have condemned the media for not following up on claims made by politicians that the poll was rigged. For example, parliamentary candidate Ayiecho Olweny cried foul after he lost the Muhoroni seat which he had been expected to win easily.” (March 28)

A number of disgruntled Twitter messages have echoed this criticism and accused the Kenyan media of “rolling over” and “advocating peace”. Among those messages:

--Kenya overapologetic media. Peace journalism isn't journalism, it's a campaign.

--The entire country is saturated & zombified by messages of peace - no critical thinking is going on here... #Kenya -Though we were smart!

However, one anonymous journalist told IWPR that disseminating sensational accusations would have been irresponsible, especially given the media’s role in unrest that followed the 2007 election. The journalist said, “Can you imagine if we started running headlines about elections being rigged? What would have happened? There was already too much tension across the country. I thank all my colleagues for being responsible and interrogating allegations made before rushing to flash headlines.” (March 28)

A recent small study confirms that Kenyan journalists did indeed not “rush to flash headlines” and instead practiced peace journalism. Using a rubric that measures different peace journalism criteria (language, framing, bias, etc.), a peace journalism class at Park University examined 35 Kenyan media stories produced in March after the election. A majority of the stories (51%) were rated peace journalism, while only 9% were deemed traditional/war journalism due to their inflammatory nature. The rest fell somewhere in between. The few instances where peace journalism was not practiced were primarily reflected in biased, one sided stories, but again, these were the exception.

Many have been quick to praise the responsible, non-inflammatory journalism practiced by Kenya media. Kenya’s information ministry said that media performed well compared to 2007, and played a role in propagating peace and national cohesion. (Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, March 18). Nicolas Benequista, on the London School of Economics Blog, wrote, “Kenyan journalism can set a new, better standard. Election coverage in Kenya in 2013 gave us a glimpse of that possibility.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Kenyan media critics, it seems to me, appear to be disgruntled political partisans who are lashing out at a media that they blame for not correcting a “fixed” election. This anger is reminiscent of the incessant whining from America’s Republican Party about how the mainstream media wasn’t tough enough on Obama prior to his re-election.

Media in Kenya, America, and elsewhere can still fulfill their watchdog function, and call out election irregularities, without sensationalization. Peace journalism is not a campaign, as one Tweeter said. Peace journalism doesn’t advocate, but it doesn’t inflame or otherwise serve political agendas, either. This is bound to upset political partisans, some of whom depend on hatred and divisions to advance their agenda; hence the criticism.

Peace journalists, listen to the criticism, but keep on doing the right thing, which is to consider the consequences of your reporting, just like Kenya’s responsible journalists did last month.

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