International media

How media and ethnic politics intertwine in Africa

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Journalists Kelvin Lewis in Sierra Leone and Linus Kaikai in Kenya discuss how best to navigate the murky waters of ethnic politics, especially when reporting on elections. They found out that even though their countries were on opposite sides of the continent, they shared the same concerns over how political blocs play on ethnicity to win votes.

Newspaper vendor, Sorie Kamara, in Freetown
Newspaper vendor, Sorie Kamara, in Freetown Mohamed Saidu Bah

Both Kenya and Sierra Leone are multi-ethnic countries where some politicians do not hesitate to manipulate voters along ethnic lines and fuel rancor using tribalism as a political tool.

Kenya has an unfortunate history of post-electoral violence and Sierra Leone is gearing up for presidential elections in March 2018.

Kelvin Lewis and Linus Kaikai discussed how the media in Kenya managed to navigate through such thorny issues and how Sierra Leone’s media is attempting not to fall into the trap of ethnic politics.

Kelvin Lewis says that signs of tensions are surfacing and that the political contenders are alreday facing attack.

“If the situation is not managed well, it might lead into serious conflict. Ethnicity and regionalism… are the bane of the our politics in Sierra Leone,”  he told RFI

Conflict is not merely a word, or an abstract notion for Kelvin Lewis. As a journalist with 30 years experience, he has lived and reported through Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war (1991 – 2002) and will not accept his country spiralling into further chaos.

This is one of the reason why, as the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), he has set up a training programme for journalists on balanced political reporting and conflict sensitive reporting.

The programme is opened to all journalists (six to eight hundred of them) and not only SLAJ’s 600 members. There are at least four training sessions planned. One in each of the country’s four regions, to be held in their headquarter towns.

Accountability pays

Linus Kaikai, general manager of NTV, Nation Television, who in a 20 year career has covered a number of Kenyan elections, says that the level of post-electoral violence in Kenya has dramatically dropped since 2007/2008 when over one thousand people died.

“One of the steps that made this last election relatively peaceful was that the threat for consequences was real. For politicians, the International Criminal Court can come in. For you citizen, the local courts can come in and there will be consequences for that violence”, explains Linus Kaikai

The media in Kenya also played a key role in that respect. In 2013, it successfully managed to organise debates involving all eight presidential candidates to outline their agenda.

“This changed the narrative from focus on tribes and ethnic communities to focusing on issues,” says Kaikai.

"It was a success in 2013 but not quite so this year in 2017 because the debates were boycotted by the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and the controversies surrounding other candidates."

Kelvin Lewis asked Linus Kaikai how the Kenyan media helped tame down the ethnic bias that was prevalent during the 2013 general elections.

“The use of ethnicity as a mobilization tool is still very much strong and alive in Kenyan politics”, Kaikai replied. "First of all, the main players rally their tribe behind [them] and then build a coalition of tribes to meet the other coalition of tribes.”

Avoid associating ethnic groups with parties

Linus Kaikai admits that it has been very difficult for the media in Kenya to break this pattern.

“[We] tried to avoid references to [naming] the communities and stick to the party names. For example, media deliberately avoid making references to those communities or tribes rallied around the Jubilee party [of President Uhuru Kenyatta], [same for] the National Super Alliance, NASA, associated with Raila Odinga and the coalition of tribes associated with that bloc.”

The other step undertaken by Kenyan media to stay clear of ethnic tensions was to also avoid reproducing speeches in local languages addressed towards a particular community.

“When, for example, the President is speaking in his native language to his community, that will not find its way to television, newspapers or radio because this is considered sometimes offending to other communities.”

An efficient media regulatory body

The Communications Authority of Kenya is another contributing factor explains Linus Kaikai.

“Oversight has improved greatly and that has improved responsibility [from] presenters and producers. Our regulatory body is keeping an eye on broadcasts and print media to ensure that some of this hate speech in 2007 that ended up in the International Criminal Court do not arise again," he said.

But Kaikai warns that the danger still remains when politicians use their native languages on community radio stations as they then tend to drop their guards.

In Sierra Leone, however, Kelvin Lewis deplores that the country’s Independent Media Commission is not as impartial as it should be and he says it is one of the main reason why he has set up this training programme for journalists ahead of the 2018 elections.

“The media outlets associated with the ruling party get away with a lot of things. Those on the other side, if they do same, will be held responsible very quickly”, Lewis said.

Legal actions may be an option but then again Kelvin Lewis remains skeptical: “You wonder how the courts will rule against the ruling part. It is almost not likely.”

Radio is the preferred media among Sierra Leoneans with 70 different stations scattered across the country even though there are some 120 newspapers circulating, mostly in the capital Freetown.

In  Kenya TV is the most popular media. There are only 3 local television stations in Sierra Leone with two of them being privately owned. Kryo is the language most used by the radio stations in Sierra Leone with Mende being more dominant in the East and Temne in the North.

The challenge resides in ensuring that the community radios broadcasting in the local languages focus on issues affecting the country and not on ethnicity or ethnic concerns. “We have a programme now called National Dialogue and we are urging the press to go along with it,” says Kelvin Lewis.

The two journalists also discussed transfer of power in their respective countries and how the political divide is linked to geography and ethnic groups.

One of Kelvin’s burning question for his East African collegue, Linus, was the latter’s last name, Kaikai, a typically Sierra Leonean surname. Listen to the last part of the programme where Linus reveals the connection between East and West Africa.

Follow Linus Kaikai on Twitter @LinusKaikai

Follow Kelvin Lewis on Twitter @kelvinxlewis

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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