February 13, 2013
RIRONI, KENYA – It’s almost 11 a.m., and the sun’s heat is already becoming unbearable in Rironi, a village about 50 kilometers from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
But a group of six men sitting on a roadside bench don’t seem to feel the heat. They are all wearing heavy jackets and scarves. Several motorbikes are parked opposite the bench.
About half a meter away, a man in blue overalls is busy repairing a motorbike. He is singing along as a popular Kikuyu tune plays from a small radio that he has placed under a tree. The joint is called Ha Mwaniki, meaning “Mwaniki’s Place” in the language of the Kikuyu tribe.
The men’s animated talk comes to a sudden stop as a booming voice announces the day’s top news in Kikuyu. One of the major news items is the result of an opinion poll on the popularity of presidential candidates ahead of the March 4 general elections.
Immediately after the newscast, the men debate whether results of opinion polls reflect the situation on the ground.
“How come the research companies have never interviewed me or anyone I know?” asks Peter Mwaniki, the mechanic, as he raises his head from the bike he has been working on. “I cannot trust them.”
The radio is the main source of news for Mwaniki and his customers. They say their preferred station is Inooro FM, which broadcasts in the Kikuyu language all over the country. They say they can’t afford to buy newspapers every day and have no time to watch TV, so they have to rely on the small radios they carry to stay updated.
Witnesses blame community radio stations for fanning violence following disputed results in Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. World Radio Day workshops highlight trainings by international and national agencies to promote fair and balanced coverage to avoid similar violence in the coming March elections. Although some radio journalists and presenters who have participated in the trainings emphasize objective broadcasting, officials say others haven’t learned their lesson.
Radio is the most popular and accessible medium of mass communication in Kenya, according to the Media Council of Kenya, a statutory body that regulates media and the conduct of journalists in the country. According to the council, 95 percent of all Kenyans listen regularly to the radio.
There are about 96 licensed FM radio stations, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya, the government body that licenses all systems and services in the communications industry, including broadcasting. Of these, 30 broadcast in vernacular languages.
Witnesses accused vernacular radio stations of broadcasting hateful remarks to fan violence following Kenya’s 2007 presidential election, according to the Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence. The commission was formed in 2008 to investigate the clashes in various parts of the country following disputed election results.
“Many recalled with horror, fear and disgust the negative and inflammatory role of vernacular radio stations in their testimony and statements to the Commission,” according to the commission’s report.
The violence killed 1,300 people, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. More than 350,000 people were displaced.
The commission was not able to obtain tapes containing the alleged hateful remarks to confirm the testimonies, according to the report. Still, one of the people the commission recommended for prosecution regarding the post-election violence was a vernacular radio journalist, Joshua Arap Sang. He is facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Jerry Abuga, an information and communication officer at the Media Council of Kenya, supports the commission’s report. He says that most media organizations took sides after the 2007 election dispute, dividing the country further. The council intervened at the height of the violence during 2008.
“We held several meetings with editors from various organizations to discuss the issue with them,” he says.
But they didn’t stop broadcasting hateful remarks.
“They did nothing to change the situation,” Abuga says.
To avoid a repeat of what happened in 2007, international and national agencies have been promoting responsible journalism.
UNESCO organized an event for World Radio Day yesterday and today in the Coast province to highlight the role of community radio in addressing social, economic and political issues in the society. Workshops include election reporting and intertribal dialogue.
Jaco Du Toit, the adviser for communication and information at UNESCO in Nairobi, says the event is convening four community radio stations from the region to discuss the production of radio programs that will encourage peace and reconciliation among communities.
The Media Council of Kenya has also been monitoring both broadcast and print media ahead of the March 4 elections.
The council has published guidelines for covering elections, which all journalists must adhere to. Whenever a media house breaches the code of conduct, the Media Council addresses the issue immediately.
“We do not police the media,” Abuga says. “But we encourage responsible journalism.”
It also receives complaints about media houses from the public. The council’s complaints commission has the power to adjudicate cases brought against media houses.
The council has also been conducting voluntary training programs for journalists and radio presenters. Ruth Muturi, the media training coordinator at the council, says that some radio presenters don’t have basic training in journalism as they are hired more for their gift of gab. They need training in order to ensure their coverage is fair, balanced and ethical.
“We advise radio presenters to be in control of live interviews and call-ins irrespective of who is talking,” she says. “If a politician starts making hateful statements, he or she should be cut short, and the presenter should make it clear that the views the speaker made were his own.”
International nongovernmental organizations, such as ActionAid and Internews, have also been organizing training for local radio journalists to promote responsible journalism and to foster peace.
Terry Nzau hosts a political show called King’ang’ani, which means “Crossfire” in Kamba, on Mbaitu FM, which broadcasts in Kamba language. She says she has attended three of these training programs during the last three years organized by the Media Council of Kenya, ActionAid and Internews.
She says she asks callers to give their views on the topic of the day without declaring which candidates they support. Whenever they make inappropriate remarks, she cuts them off and explains to listeners that the radio station does not support their views.
“I also cannot declare my candidate of choice on Facebook and Twitter,” she says, “as people may think that is the stand of the station that I work for.”
But Victor Bwire, the deputy CEO of the Media Council of Kenya, says some journalists didn’t learn from the 2007 elections violence and are likely to repeat the same mistakes.
“From the way reporters covered the recent party primaries, it is easy to tell that nothing has changed,” he says. “The reporters were announcing unofficial election results on Facebook and Twitter, instead of getting official results from returning officers.”
Bwire says the council has received several complaints from the public of radio stations broadcasting hateful speech in the Coast province. But on investigation, it did not find the stations culpable.
“We record all news programs and shows,” he says, “and whenever we receive complaints, we play the tapes to find out it the complaints are valid. But most of them are not.”
The Media Council of Kenya has been urging radio stations to produce fair, balanced and objective reporting about the ongoing political campaigns.
“We do not forbid radio stations to take sides politically,” Bwire says. “But we insist that if they do so, they should declare publicly.”