As Kenya prepares for elections, much will be expected from the 4th
estate who play a critical role in enable citizens make informed choices on issues and candidates seeking elective positions. The electioneering period is one that attracts a lot of media coverage and reporting.
At the beginning of the month, several brickbats were directed at the mainstream media for settling that next year’s election is shaping up as a ‘two-horse race’. Despite its key role in informing the masses and shaping the agenda, the media still has a way to go in terms of the factual, unbiased and objective coverage of elections in the country. Adherence to the principles of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality is key.
Recent chaos witnessed in Kondele exposed weaknesses in independent journalism as many media outlets had different versions of the story, major newspapers had different headlines with some purporting that the fracas was fueled by scramble over money leaving the public with a task of deciding which version of the story to believe. While this instance may seem small and insignificant, the Kenyan media has a history of being at the center of tense moments in the country.
During the 2007/2008 post-election skirmishes, a number of journalists, including well known television anchors exposed their biases by seeming to lean to a certain political standing, a period during which the term ‘two-horse race’ was also popularized. Yet that is not the isolated case. Even today, some journalists have in some instances blurred the lines between the personal and the professional.
However much we would like to agree to the fact that prominence and impact are key news values, it is important for the media outlets to give fair airtime and coverage for all the parties and aspiring candidates. It is worth noting that the visibility accorded to women and other marginalized groups is yet to match that given to their male counterparts. In our previous research on the inclusion of women in political processes
, we noted that women either experience minimal or skewed coverage by the media which works to their disadvantage in their political pursuits.
This type of unfair coverage also reinforces traditional beliefs and continues to suppress the voices and ambitions of women and the marginalized groups with interest in political sphere. This comes even as a report by a National Daily indicated that many youth, women and people living with disability have expressed interest to vie for different seats in the coming general elections.
Kenya’s code of conduct and practice of journalism provides guidelines on a number of issues to ensure free, fair and accurate coverage of election campaigns including: accuracy and fairness, right of reply, unnamed sources confidentiality among others. However, media analysis during the previous electioneering campaigns for the general elections reveals that there was bias in coverage of presidential candidates and political parties.
In an attempt to address this, the Media Council of Kenya recently unveiled the updated election campaigns guidelines which will serve as a self-regulating tool for the media during next year’s General Election in bid to ensure free and fair coverage of the process.
In the guidelines, State and security agencies will be expected to facilitate journalists and media practitioners to cover elections without fear of intimidation or violence. There have been some cases of such intimidation and violence against the media, therefore, the guidelines come in handy in providing a better working approach between the media and state agencies.
The guidelines will pave way for training and capacity building of journalists and media practitioners across the country on their role, rights and obligations in election coverage. There is need for collaboration among all players in this field, to address these challenges and to ensure a conducive working environment for journalists, ahead of the next year’s elections.
Finally, the media council, media owners and journalists ought to remember to be guided by the media ethics as they have a duty to be the alternative, impartial voice, which is much needed in next year’s polls.