Report & Essay
WAR JOURNALISM: KENYA’S NEWEST TOURIST ATTRACTION
The chaos in the peaceful country Kenya has sent everyone blaming fingers on everyone else. The media in particular has been at the forefront of throwing accusations at the Electoral Commision Chairman Samuel Kivuitu for ‘irregulaties’ during elections, the President, Mwai Kibaki for ‘stealing votes’, and some accusing Raila Odinga of being nothing short of a terrorist. But the Media has not asked itself what role it is playing in fermenting this chaos, and better still, how it contributed to all this chaos in its coverage prior to the elections, during the elections, and in this undefinable times since what it calls ‘Post Election Violence’ started.
The local media, in cahoots with international media, has created the latest tourist attraction package for Kenya: War Journalism. As tourists take the first flight out of their African Safari, foreign journalists have trooped in, each with eye and camera lens eager to beam to the world the latest pictures of Africa’s violence in a tone that reads: ‘if Kenya of all the places can go to such violence, then the Rwanda Genocide trait must be genetic to Africans.’
What is going on in parts of Kenya now is not civil disobedience or acts of protests due to the election debacle. It might have started like that, but what we are seeing now is well trained militia hunting members of opposite tribal backgrounds for elimination-not even forced migration. We are seeing pregnant women being thrown off multi-storey buildings for belonging to particular ethnic backgrounds. Children who sought refuge in a church with their mothers being burnt alive. Residential estates being cleared off tenants of certain ethnic backgrounds. In short, Ethnic cleansing. The foreign journalists know that this is what is happening, and are here in droves to send back the story. Their excitement waned for a moment, but is now back. The media, for all its great work, can’t escape the same kind of scrutiny that it is turning onto every institution and individual in trying to make sense of all this.
For the local media, it was obvious they had taken sides during the period leading to the elections. Which is not a bad thing, since media independence and impartiality is a theoretical frame work good for passing your Journalism school exams but not good in real life practice. Fox News is the mouthpiece for the Republican America in as much as the national Broadcaster in Kenya is a government mouthpiece.
The Kenyan media houses-audio visual and Print-went out of their way to give coverage to political statements of whomever they fancied during the campaign periods. Even when such sentiments were thinly veiled sentiments firing up tribal hatred. The result of this was tribal prejudices, which were not exactly dead but dormant like a virus, came to be regurgitated. Political ‘analysts’ went as far as looking at which tribe would support who, and for local MPs, which clan they came from and which long running vendetta since the migration of that tribe to that area would bar this and that clan from supporting a member from the other clan. Armchair political analysis was excused by ‘but this is how it is, this is the reality on the ground.’ By reporting on a story, the press fanned embers into a fire.
So obvious was it that certain National broadcasters and media houses would not be allowed to cover certain politicians and events. Media houses fired staff belonging to the opposing tribe, and filled their positions with their own, just to ensure that ‘the editorial policy was followed’ in a Nazi like Aryan supremacy kind of mentality and cleanliness. Politicians knew who to buy, who to bribe, who to grease. Politicians are on record barring ‘enemy’ media houses from covering their events, and inciting citizens against them. In retaliations, the houses each went overboard in demonizing the other’s political affiliations which meant tribe. Even before ethnic violence broke out in Kenya, Ethnic cleansing was underway in Kenyan media houses: of staff, and more so, of coverage.
So bad was it that even when violence broke out, certain media houses couldn’t cover it adequately. It isn’t suprising that Salim Amin, a respectable Kenyan journalist, on being interviewed on Al Jazeera (Thursday Jan 17th 2008, Witness), said, “journalists were too steeped in their political inclinations meaning that citizens were against certain stations thought to favour particular political leanings,” and “for the first time in Kenya, it was easier to have foreign journalists doing what is a local story”
Once foreign journalists came to the scene, things changed. Kenya, by virtue of its geographical location, physical landscape and capitalistic policies that have been pro-West during the cold war, is a country whose people and policies are afflicted by the ‘Tourism Mentality,’ a grave mental disease. Tourism is our livelihood, so even if elephants kill human beings in Meru, touch them not since ‘tourists won’t come and we won’t have foreign exchange earnings’. Our athletes run in Europe Circuits (and more recently Quatar) and become celebs before they tire out and come back home burnt out and that is when we mere locals get to know them. Coffee and tea is grown for ‘export’ so don’t drink grade 1 coffee, we need to export it to Europe. Allow US troops to train your armed forces so as to ‘provide a base for anti terrorism in Somali and Middle East.’ Hotels at the coast can only serve the native you with a smile during the ‘off peak season’ since they are geared to tourists only. Infact, we even have a tourist police unit, and one tourist killed in a highway gunfight with thugs makes it to prime time news complete with the Police Boss swearing to ‘not leave any stone unturned’ while dozens of Kenyans are killed daily with no hue or cry.
Our visibility, together with our developed communication network means anything happening in Kenya gets the West’s attention faster and in bigger quantities than other African areas. So when violence breaks out, the whole world sits up and listens.
On December 29th 2007, marauding Kenyan youths hunted down people of particular ethnic backgrounds and killed them, despite having stayed with them as neighbours for long. A day later Mwai Kibaki was declared president and faster than Marion Jones winning the Olympic hundred metres propelled by steroids, he sworn in as the president. Woe unto you if you belonged to his ethnic tribe.
The local media gulped it like hot news but hours later realized that this was no longer a joke in media offices. This was Rwanda unraveling. All talk of ‘we the media just report reality and don’t create reality’ was forgotten.
The media realized that the scenes of ethnic animosity they were reporting were actually fuelling more violence and deaths. Even after the government banned ‘live coverage of events,’ journalists went further and ‘self censored’ themselves, actively making decisions to give the grissly images a blackout, and creating a cry for peace under the banner ‘Save Kenya.’ A historical thing happened: All Media houses had front line pages and hastily prepared clips calling for peace, and even shared an editorial across them. For a day or two, the press practiced what the Norwegian Scholar John Galtun, called ‘Peace Journalism,’ a concept that is peace oriented, truth-oriented and more importantly, solution oriented. The Nigerian journalist, Oma Jebah, maybe having seen what violence has done to his country, has aptly covered the concept in action in the paper he presented in South Africa in 2006 titled “ The Role of Peace Journalism in Africa: The Nigerian Experience.” In the paper he quotes Galtung saying the media, through its coverage of conflicts, can deliberately or inadvertently promote conflicts as well as encourage peace in order to “reduce human suffering, increase human happiness.” ( John Galtung: Peace Journalism-A Challenge” in Wilhelm Kempf and Heikki Luostarinen(eds.)
For a day or two the killings went down. Kenyans realized that we were bleeding to death and were in dangerous grounds. However the international media rushed in like dogs on smelling blood. They beamed picture of dead bodies and people hacking each other to death, and the tourism bug hit again. Youths clearly posed for international journalists wielding machetes and chanting war cries in choreographed sequences. When mass demonstrations were called for, I witnessed a procession on Mbagathi way. The youths were docile, while anti-riot police whiled their way a hundred or so metres away from them.
The moment international journalists arrived in their combat jackets written press, the youths rose up, posed and yelled as the journalists clicked away and zoomed in closer. The youths became bolder, stoning the police knowing international outcry would follow if they were beaten up. A perfect case of camera CREATING STORY.
The moment these were beamed on Al Jazeera, the following day street violence escalated. In daytime people ran the streets and in the evenings ran to entertainment dens to see if ‘they appeared on television.’ People bought newspapers the following day to make cuttings of pictures in which they had appeared.
The Kenyan media forgot its peace mission. It went back to out-doing each other in sensationalizing a crucial issue. A media house filmed armed police guarding a round-about of a main road so as to repulse youths using it to gain entry to the city centre for demonstrations. Just because the City Mortuary was in the vicinity, the reporter went to file the story as ‘police guarding the Mortuary to prevent people gaining entry into it’ and clipping it with another article to insinuate the morgue was full of people shot by police. Of course, Major General Ali, the Police Commissioner, himself a former Army Brigadier, went ballistic against the media. “The US itself never showed grizzly images in the post 9-11 period!” he begged.
The main political antagonists realized they were in the eyes of the world, since Kenya was making headlines beating Benazhir Bhutto’s assassination and Iraq war in all international channels. Suddenly, the politicos were no longer talking to Kenyans slaughtering each other. The world was their arena. BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ became a favourite, and Al Jazeera and of course CNN. Positions that had softened hardened overnight once video conferencing cables were set up. Instead of talking peace in Kenya, they breathed fire on each other much to the delight of the world. Look how Africans go for each other’s jugular. To cement such interviews, dead bodies and burning villages were needed in plenty. And the locals succumbed, playing to the international gallery as the country sunk.
Once people know that they have the media’s attention, they go into posturing mode, whether with a rose flower, a machete, or a human skull. When Congo rebels realized that killing human beings wasn’t garnering them world attention, they threatened to kill the Silverback Mountain Gorillas. All the western media ran to them, to see if they were bluffing. With such attention, they indeed killed coz they realized only by killing would the journalists flown in continue to stay and give them coverage. Plane hijackers operate on the same posturing urge.
Politicians rejected Nobel Peace Prize Winner Desmond Tutu as a peacemaker. He wasn’t big enough. Jet him out, we want the United Nations. No, we will take you to the Hague. Its Ok, but let African Union Chair, Ghana’s president John Kuffuor, fly in. No, we want Condoleeza Rice! Kuffuor flew out exasperated. Ok, Condoleeza sends a rep. Is she big enough? Ish Ish!! Ok, we will settle for Koffi Annan, at least the initials UN Secretary General always follow his name, even if qualified by the adjective ‘Former’. Come on guys, solve your problems locally-the guy has a cold he cant travel and maybe get an even worse strain of flu from your country. No. We are the latest Tourist Attraction. Only international figures guaranteed to have CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera star presenters as part of their entourage will satisfy us.
Facts and figures are changing depending on which station. One media house would report that Nairobi streets were peaceful, while another would give updates using repeated clips to show how the City and other parts of the country had turned into battle zones. When Kipkelion chaos broke, NTV on 20th Jan stated in its 7pm bulletin, (in the National and more listened to Swahili bulletin) that the area had come back to peace after recent inter-ethnic clashes left twenty people dead. KTN, another media house, reported that the area had ‘exploded into violence after police arrested people alleged to be looters, sending residents on revenge attacks where ten people are dead.’ So which is the truth? Was the area peaceful or not? Were the dead ten or twenty? Were the deaths as a result of police action or people targeting certain ethnic communities?
The international media drew parallels with Rwanda. More journalists jetted in. Beaming more violence. What had begun as acts of civil disobedience had actually turned out to be well planned ethnic cleansing, rapes and urban thuggery. But the media were and are not concerned with the effects. Just the figures and images.
Terminologies have changed: Vandalisers have been called ‘peaceful demonstrators’ even in Television footage which shows them breaking into supermarkets and looting fridges television sets and food. Youths armed with huge machetes and throwing clubs, stoning police and throwing petrol bombs at police and even taunting them with chants of ‘shoot us, shoot us’ have been called ‘peaceful demonstrators whom police used excessive violence while dispersing’. Police shooting live bullets at point blank range ‘are using minimum force to restore order.’ People running from organized, marauding warriors torching everywhere certain ethnic groups are seeking refuge including churches have been called ‘internally displaced citizens running from chaos that has rocked their areas as pro-opposition youths expressed their discontent at the results of the presidential elections’!
In the international Court of Justice at The Hague, people who similarly burnt others in churches in Rwanda are being charged with specific titles like “Crimes Against humanity, Genocide, Inciting Genocide.”
Peace is needed in this country and the media has to encourage it or be accused in the Hague too for knowingly fanning violence. It is in times like these where theoretical frameworks of media independence need to be judged on the human reality. In the Iraq war, there are no bloody body bags or wounded soldiers seen on American TV. Everything is sanitized and clean-including the boxes bearing dead soldiers. So flowery it makes every American youth dream that their country has gone to Iraq to deliver flowers to those unfortunate Iraq children. Anything shown on the contrary on Al Jazeera is quickly explained by US media as ‘Collateral Damage’ or ‘regrettably due to Bad vision in the dark desert nights.’ As if it is an Arabian Nights romantic movie.
Conflicts create deaths including those of five year old girls burnt en-masse in a church. But others gain from them. The warlords gain supremacy through fear. And journalists get employed. In huge numbers. Iraq war alone has created room for about 7,000 journalists stationed in Iraq and the surrounding states of Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. But it can also create a sense of hope. The US has practiced this due to experience.
Just like in the US where the Military forced journalists covering the Iraq war to report ‘US friendly’ stories in exchange for rides on fighter planes as the US went bombing and thus granting them ‘breaking news’, (and the threat of losing this accredition if you report what would be seen as demeaning the US,) journalists during periods of conflict create another war back home: The war of public opinion that can further escalate the armed conflict or erase it. If a people don’t support a cause, it fails. It’s the way journalists cover this cause that makes people perceive it and chose to allow it to continue happening. This is where journalism therefore creates situations rather than ‘reports situation just the way it we found it.’
All the American stories , from Afghani war, to 9-11, to the Katrina, to the Iraq war, are about Hope. About soldiers like Private Jessica Lynch who allegedly (but actually never really) fought bravely until captured by Iraq forces, but was saved in an American commando raid. About people who lost their relatives in Twin towers but now are stronger and know ‘he is smiling at me from above as a star’. About heroes like the firemen who went into the building to rescue even when they knew they would die. The outcome has spiraled to films and TV series like ‘Heroes’, ‘24,’ ‘Twin Towers’ and Jerry Bruckheimer’s ‘Profiles from the Frontlines’. The Kenyan situation will spiral later into documentaries of burnt villages, charred corpses, and ‘how a City in the Sun, the only island of peace in an African full of war, finally succumbed to ethnic violence just like its neighbours Rwanda and Somalia’ all this said with a cheer-leaders pitched voice of a white journalist standing in the beauty of the receding African sunset at the edge of the RiftValley, where the orange hue covering the silhouetted ranges of the Longonot are defined as ‘symbolic of the fiery beauty that Kenya contrasts itself in: beauty that can erupt into fire and blood anytime…’
Kenya is at war with itself. Any journalist covering it has to be clear: You are either for war or for peace.
All media houses have become cheerleaders in this war, cheering as their generals declare war on other generals whom they can’t really hit and so tell their foot soldiers to kill innocent Kenyan citizens by virtue of the terrible curse of which language your father seduced your mother with en route to you being born. The less pleasant job of questioning official policy, opposition strategy, and what vision our leaders have as concerns this violence has been thrown out of the window.
Politicians are being given lee way and extreme coverage to hold this country at ransom. No one is doing enough human interest stories about the ordinary people who are bearing the pains of this senseless chaos. As Philip Seib , in his book, ‘The Global Journalist’, argues; it is morally wrong for journalists to stand by and watch innocent children being slaughtered, women raped, children being maimed and refuse to “to prod policy makers for action to stop the genocide through incensive, investigative and consistent reports which draw public pity and attention.”
What we have is an international and local media intent on seeing more violence since they love ‘War journalism.’ Again, a huge quote from Omah Jebah in his peace journalism paper. “The low road, by far dominant in the media, sees a conflict as a battle and the battle as sports arena and gladiator circus. The parties, usually reduced to the number 2, are combatants in the struggle to impose their goals. The underlying reporting model, often very visible, is that of a military command: who advances, who capitulates short of their goals; counting the losses in terms of nos. killed, wounded, and material damage. The zero-sum perspective draws upon sports reporting where “winning is not everything, it is the only thing”. The same perspective is applied to negotiations as verbal battles: who outsmarts the other, who gets the other to say yes; who comes out closest to his original position. War journalism has sports journalism, and court journalism!, as models.”(Galtung, In Wilhen Kempf and Heikki Luostarinen,(eds), 2002).
Unless we are saying that War Journalism is the latest tourism attraction package Kenya has to offer to the world.
(Simiyu Barasa is a film-maker and prose writer. He was once a TV journalist until he realized he could actually do the same job description by being a fiction writer and making fictional films. He is a member of the Coalition of Concerned Kenyan Writers hoping to use their writing to help ease the Kenyan situation.)