I had the pleasure of helping out on a talk given by Tole Nyatta a few days ago. Tole is a volunteer at Pamoja FM, a community radio station in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. He’s in Washington DC to receive a media leadership award from Internews Network.

Tole Nyatta at mic

Internews

Kibera was the site of a great deal of violence during the post-election conflict in January and February, and Pamoja played a large role in trying to maintain or restore peace in the neighborhood. Pamoja was profiled in the Christian Science Monitor in January; saying:

“We’re doing news, but we don’t incite people,” says Mohammad Abubakr, a hip young volunteer who runs the midday reggae show, aimed at Kibera’s youth. Normally, Mr. Abubakr’s show covers topics such as the need to avoid drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy, but since the political crisis, Pamoja has become a clearing house for the sort of basic information that people would need after a hurricane or other natural disaster.

“We don’t tell them [who should be] president, and make them want to fight,” says Abubakr. “We tell them the situation in Kibera, which shops are open, where there is food, where there is fuel, where they can buy airtime for their cellphones.”

A good deal has been written on the role of the media in post-election violence in Kenya, with policy recommendations, as well as several projects to work with Kenyan media on conflict-sensitive journalism, how to report on conflict, and support for coverage of the National Accord and Reconcilation Act’s implementation.

Internews conducted research and a ran a series of workshops around the country to “train[ ] journalists and presenters to constructively tell the stories of those affected by the violence in their struggle to restart their lives.”

International Media Support produced several reports and policy recommendations, and also created a manual on conflict sensitive reporting for Kenya by Ross Howard.

The BBC Wold Service Trust produced a policy briefing on the role of media.

All three organizations present detailed and sophisticated recommendations focusing on strategic engagement with media on training, technical capacity, and the skills to cover conflict. They bemoan a reflexive attitude on the part of governments and some in the international community to restrict or ban speech in crises, and to compare incidents of possible hate speech and incitement with the Rwanda genocide. The BBC says:

Most donors and development actors have attached a low priority to media and media support issues in the context of development and particularly in fragile states. Neither funding nor research in this area have (with some exceptions) been considered significant strategic priorities. A generic and generally rhetorical commitment to the importance of a free media has sufficed.

The underlying reason for this is a perspective that liberalized media undermine fragile and weak states, and that speech freedoms and information access should in certain contexts be restricted in favor of support to the state. This notion implies that a non-liberal or authoritarian media system is somehow more desirable, and suggests that those media support a broadly unbiased public good. In reality, as in the Kenyan situation, such media are nearly always aligned with the party in power. The abstract idea of supporting a “state” in fact means support for the ruling faction. International support for the state is hence interpreted locally as support for the ruling power.

Such ideas also presume that a country’s information space can still be controlled. Kenya, as with recent examples in Pakistan, Burma, and China, demonstrate that people simply turn to other communications technologies in the face of restrictions on media.

Based on Tole’s experience at Pamoja, together with the above reports, here’s a summary of some lessons on media and incitement in Kenya:

1) Banning of vernacular media is short-sighted.

The Kenyan government is considering a ban on vernacular radio stations, claiming they incited violence. However, the assumption that the media drive conflict is simplistic. Many vernacular stations sought to support peace, but were threatened by their community when they tried. Hate speech came from call-in programs and to a lesser extent, DJs – rather than from journalists. Reporting could be shallow or one-sided, but did not generally incite.

At Radio Lake Victoria for example, the station tried to program peace media. Crowds protested and forced journalists to support their movement, saying, ‘you represent our community, so you need to represent our views. A call for peace is akin to a call for the validation of the elections.’ One journalist told Tole, “If I don’t represent them, then I’m gonna get lynched.”

Lessons: Stations need:

  • Ongoing relationships across ethnic, communal, political divides, and media social networks outside of identification community;

  • Training for media in how to cover conflict, physical security.

2) Rwanda is not the automatic comparison point.

Attempts to use the experience of Rwanda as an excuse for censorship, vernacular language restrictions, or cutting off live programming ultimately will lead to new problems.

Lessons:

  • Hate speech laws are often used to deny rights to minority groups – an excuse for repression. Selective enforcement is one element of this; biased government, another.
  • Censorship of hate speech does not alter the fact of hatred – possibly it simply drives that hatred into other channels.
  • Blaming speech for incitement while not addressing other aspects of discrimination and underlying issues that cause violence simply scapegoats the media. Security comes from dialogue, relationships with neighbors, and the resolution of underlying issues.
  • In countries without functioning rule of law or weak judiciaries, hate speech laws are problematic because they can’t be properly adjudicated.

3) The KBC approach – broadcasting feel-good stories that flatter the government – is short-sighted and even harmful.

KBC misstatements about the security of a given town resulted in some Kikuyu returning home, only to be slaughtered.

Lesson: Managing the message during an emergency can have unforeseen consequences – the idea that peace messages are solutions in every context is naïve if not given in the context of accurate information.

4) Local-global continuum.

The Kenyan government banned live broadcasting and aggressive coverage of the elections, and of violence. This was based on a narrow, national vision of media, whereby information space could be controlled. However:

  • International broadcasters (BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera) showed more violence than local stations, upending the Kenyan stations’ caution;
  • Because of the ban, international programming couldn’t be countered by more specific, up-to-date local perspectives, creating a rash of rumor and supposition;
  • SMS messages and Internet provided avenues for information to race around the country, repeating what was seen on the international broadcasts, but with distortions and lack of clarity.
  • National governments do not control information spaces; attempting control simply causes people to seek information elsewhere, on other networks.

5) Question of incitement and authority of media – new v. old.

There were numerous incidents of highly volatile messages sent via SMS texting and Internet. Tole’s perspective on whether those messages resonated:

  • With mass media, people tend to believe. They associate media with authority, facts, and information. However, relationship is from distant speaker to diffuse audiences and thus effects are difficult to identify.

  • With SMS texting and email, people are more skeptical. They question the validity of the information. On the other hand, the contact is often personal, via friends and community networks, so there is a more direct kind of social pressure.

6) Digital Media.

Digital media are increasingly popular in Kenya. Seven million cell phone users and an active online community, with sites such as the blog aggregator Kenyaunlimited, or mashada.com. Both SMSs and blogs had a mix of peace messages and virulent speech. Mashada had to shut its forum the end of January due to the volume of nastiness.

Ushahidi.com was created to track conflict, verify events, create timelines, and provide space for dialogue. However, Tole says that Ushahidi was not well known among community media outlets. Such efforts are valuable but needs more outreach, awareness. As with international broadcasting, even services that reach a relatively small elite can have an effect, due to connectivity provided by cellular phone networks.

7) Truth and justice v. peace and reconciliation.

Journalism community describes their response to the crisis as a “failure” to uphold their watchdog role, and say attempts to calm the violence conflicts with their journalistic obligations. The IMS reports get into this in some detail.

Lessons: Journalists and media outlets are unprepared to report on mass violence in their own communities. They need:

  • Editorial guidance and resources.
  • Security (both training and resources).
  • Long-term perspective on investigative journalism into underlying issues.

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