|I Accuse the Press for igniting post election violence: Fact or scapegoat?
There is a grain of truth in the charge that vernacular stations fuelled the post election violence–just a grain. But caution was thrown to the wind in the Internet and SMS, argues Special Correspondent PETER ORIARE
Debate over the role community FM radio stations broadcasting in vernacular played in promoting violence is gaining momentum and becoming acrimonious by the day.
Information minister Samuel Poghisio is leading the onslaught. He maintains that radio stations that broke the law should be deregistered.
But those in the media and human rights have already reacted angrily, dismissing the claims as another attempt by a heavy-handed and embattled government to curtail freedom of expression, and punish media unsympathetic to its cause.
The controversy raises fundamental questions over perception and reality. Did the community radio stations fuel the post-election violence or not? And if they did, to what extent did they actually contribute towards ethnic violence visited on various communities in Kenya? And what is the appropriate way of dealing with the errant community media? Are there other variables that could have stimulated the post-election violence?
The position that they contributed to post-election violence assumes that ODM supporters evicted PNU supporters from Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley because the radio stations told them to do so.
It assumes that the community radio stations unanimously dictated to the masses in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley what to do with their PNU sympathisers.
The reverse, it follows, is true of PNU supporters who evicted their ODM supporters and sympathisers from Central, Nairobi and parts of Rift Valley provinces.
But such arguments are simplistic, as proof of causation in such matters is problematic because of the multiplicity of factors influencing behaviour of listeners. Vernacular stations were not the only causes of hatred. Other sources include family, peers, colleagues, schools, political parties and their mobilisation strategies, religious organisations and other civil society active in politics.
Indeed, nearly all communities have their own community radio today. According to a freelance photographer in Nairobi, a vernacular radio station broadcast messages to the effect that “weeds should be uprooted,” while another station singled out a community for the saying that those never satisfied with anything should be left to go fishing.
A lecturer at Kenya the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication said: “I usually do not tune in to vernacular radio stations, but on December 30, I tuned in by sheer accident. I was looking for the BBC, but since I understand a bit of the language, I heard the presenter saying that “let’s uproot the stubborn weed”.
But Media Institute executive director David Makali said: “Both the media and politicians contributed to the problem. The politicians and their parties paid for the inflammatory advertisements. It’s also scandalous because the media can’t tell you who won the elections.”
And the ban on live broadcasting did not help matters. Following the ban, most community radio stations merely relayed messages broadcast by BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera that showed violence taking place. The foreign media showed real time evictions of burning houses, scarred people on the move and even people hacked to death.
When people saw their tribesmen being killed, they did similar things to members of other communities living among them. Some stations relayed such gory stories they fuelled the post-election violence in unexpected places far from the epicentre. According to Wanjohi, such messages also fuelled revenge attacks by reporting the plight of the displaced, and their eventual return to “ancestral homes”.
And while such reports supported relief and humanitarian activities, in some cases these reports coincided with acts of violence against vulnerable displaced people in isolated places across the country.
Nairobi lawyer P.L.O. Lumumba agrees with Muli: “I have listened to some of the vernacular stations calling people to arms,” he said. This kind of talk, and the evidence is available, could easily incite voters to violence.
According to a media analyst, “the call-in services made ordinary people air hate messages”.
And when the violence broke out, the stations tended to give a lot of air time to the violence, making gory descriptions of what was happening.
Yet before the campaigns, the radio stations were instrumental in stimulating the registration and political participation. And owing to their proximity to the grassroots, the community radios were true watchdogs, and vigorously put politicians to task over critical national issues.
The media were the first to bring to public attention the tallying anomalies of presidential votes that led to the current political crisis in Kenya. They also showed live the sharp political divisions and fights at the ECK media centre, where the results were being read. Political bickering and election fraud were played live in Kenyan sitting rooms and public places.
On the day of the General Election, the community media scrutinised the performance of election officials. They broke news of late arrival of election officials and ballot papers. They prompted ECK officials to act.
The community radio stations were also the first to report election results because of their proximity to polling stations and knowledge of the ECK officials on the ground. When ECK dragged their feet in releasing results, the community radios filled the gaps through continuous analysis and updates of new results from officials on the ground.
And following the eruption of post-election violence, the community radio stations played important roles in promoting peaceful co-existence. For instance, they supported the “Chagua Amani Zuia Noma” campaign.
Indeed, the argument that community media fuelled post-election violence ignored the role played by other mass media such as Internet, mobile phones and satellite communication.
And while FM stations may have hastened the current crisis, it is the short message texts via mobile phones that were the more devastating. Here are just some of the SMSs, some more spiteful than others, which were probably sent out simply for their amusement value.
For Jaramogi so hated Kenyans that he gave his son Raila that whosoever believe in him shall live in eternal slavery, hunger, diseases and die in pain. Look at Kibera, look at Nyanza; we do not need Kiberas and Nyanzas in Kenya!
He is cold, he is a terminator, a destroyer, a demon with an odd national constituency. He is Raila Odinga and he hasn’t what it takes to deliver Kenyans to the Promised Land. Join other Kenyans in stopping this great son of Africa. Today the people have spoken. Send this SMS to 10 people.
Do you want us to be ruled by Luo to take us back to joblessness? Safeguard the kingdom. Let’s ALL come out and give all the votes to Kibaki so that we are not ruled by an uncircumcised man who will make us wear shorts and plunder all our wealth. Send this to 50 or more GEMA people. Its your vote that will prevent our country from going back to Egypt. May our God bless you.
Woooi! Do you want to let the kingdom to go to the Luos by failing to vote? Vote for Kibaki. Failure to vote is tantamount to voting for the Luo. Send this message to at least three of your friends from our (Kikuyu) community. Kibaki Tena.
With Ngilu in, the pentagon becomes sexagon. No wonder they have been singing “bado mapambano”.
Other SMSs ridiculed PNU:
Poromoka Na Uhuru (Collapse with Uhuru)
Potea Na Uhuru (Get lost with Uhuru)
Porojo Na Ukabila (Nonsense and tribalism)
Pora Na Utoroke (Embezzle and run)
Payuka Na Unyanyuke (Talk nonsense and boast)
Payuka Na Uanguke (Talk nonsense and fail)
Panga Na Ushindwe (Plan and fail)
Panda Na Ushuke (Ascend and descend)
Pumbavu Na Ukabila (Foolish with tribalism)
Potea Na Upumbavu (Get lost with foolishness)
Party of No Understanding. Sambaza (distribute) this to 10 ODM SUPPORTERS for a good laugh!
The E-mail was not left out:
Reasons why I will not vote for Raila Odinga: Raila’s son, Fidel Castro Odinga, is named after the world’s longest serving dictator. Fidel Castro (the Cuban head of State) is the communist who turned Cuba into a Third World slum. Why should this be a point of concern for Kenyans? Fidel Castro is Raila’s role model. Raila is a communist and a dictator at heart. If we make the mistake of giving him the presidency now, he will never let go. This guy will be a life president; Raila being a Luo, is technically in the eyes of ALL the tribes of Kenya, a boy. Hey, hey! Before concluding that I am hitting the guy below the belt (pun intended), it is him who on several occasions, have stated this fact and in fact tried to make a case for being uncircumcised. The last time he did this, to my recollection, was at Kasarani ODM presidential nominations; Why did I say all tribes of Kenya? All tribes other than the Luo circumcise their males as a mark of initiation from boyhood to manhood. The Luo initiate by removing six upper teeth. This guy is uncut (by his own admission) and has all his 32 teeth; Raila is a tribalist and particularly hates Kikuyus passionately. Raila is denying — without being accused, at least publicly — that he hates Kikuyus. His earlier comments tell a different story. Remember the comment he made that Uhuru was the only good Kikuyu when they were both in ODM? Raila is accusing the PNU of creating Raila-phobia among the Kikuyu. Raila is creating Kikuyu- phobia among everyone else as did Moi throughout his rule.
E-mail bloggers on Mwoto mwoto, chini kwa chini news networks “revealed” to us that President Kibaki was sworn in at 2pm and not at 4.45pm as KBC televised.
Overzealous propagandists and bloggers used Internet to disseminate hate messages. Political parties and their sympathisers created websites specifically for political campaign propaganda. Bloggers had a field day posting hate messages and propaganda.
Short text messages in ethnic languages were circulated urging members of various communities not to vote for perceived enemies. One such message implored community members not to vote for a presidential candidate “who is not circumcised”.
Kinsmen used SMS messages to discipline and ostracise errant relatives with differing political orientation. “Is it true what I’m hearing? Tell me if you are PNU? You have to change because you have embarrassed your family by supporting PNU,” a man warned his brother.
People reacted negatively to messages depicting their preferred presidential candidates either as “devil worshippers” or “chameleon”.
But the service providers promoted peace through SMS. Safaricom dispatched SMS messages such as: “In the interest of peace, we appeal to Kenyans to embrace each other in the spirit of patriotism, and exercise restraint to restore calm to our nation.”
Celtel also sent out another: “One people one nation, choose peace.”
An assessment of the role of community radio stations in the post-election violence must also take into account the factors that made them vulnerable to political manipulation.
According to Allan Were, a journalist, community radio stations became hostage to regional and tribal political establishments because of the increased tribalisation of Kenya.
“Unaccustomed to free, balanced critical opinion, public debates and truth, the media became perfect instruments of the political will during the critical period before elections”.
The writer is a communications and research consultant