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What we learned about local and foreign media

I have been full of praise for Kenya’s media during the recent, still-not-concluded, general election. Local media coverage was vibrant and lively, and most importantly, stayed away from the parochiality and bias of the past. I was delighted to see very young anchors and journalists handling very weighty matters with verve and aplomb. Applause.

Yet, as we cherished our own, we simultaneously became very intolerant of foreign media. The world’s news houses, it must be said, did not cover themselves in glory in covering our election. There were some execrable reports and very questionable imagery used, in TV channels and newspapers who really should know better.

I myself was approached repeatedly for comments or participation in foreign talk-shows as the election loomed. But I soon discovered one sad fact: the only thing that was really on the agenda was this question: How bloody will this election be?

After a few attempts to suggest that there were other, bigger, better stories to cover in discussing Kenya – such as how astonishingly quickly a young population is embracing connectivity and technology – I gave up and simply declined all requests.

My fellow Kenyans were more forthright in their responses. Vigorous social-media campaigns were launched with much self-righteous zeal to attack foreign media and hold them to account. By and large, this worked: some apologies were received, and a few of the better outlets tried to make amends by covering more positive stories.

It is perhaps time to take stock. It remains true: the world comes to report on Africa with the story already written. The frame is the same; only names and dates need to changed. The plotlines are cast in stone: tribal enmities; horrific bloodletting; egregious corruption; comical leadership dynasties.

These media houses, please remember, are not catering for us. Their customers are their home audience, and the story that sells is the one that shows Africa ablaze again, too woeful to look after its own affairs. If they want to remain relevant in Africa and gain African audiences, they will have to take off those cracked spectacles and invest in new ones. Otherwise, Africa will build its own media and tell its own stories in its own way.

But pause for a moment. I have said in the past: we are very quick to make foreigners a convenient bugbear and deflect attention from our own problems. Whilst I was delighted with the leaps made by our own journalists, a part of me wondered why and when our media became razzmatazz specialists rather than interrogators of the high and mighty.

How, for example, did we miss all the electoral procurement lapses that are now coming to light, and fail to warn of voter-system collapse? Were we all too invested in the “peace-at-all-costs” story? And why don’t we attack our own scams with the same vigour with which we organize protests against foreigners?

Let’s be circumspect. I asked on this page in 2008: “Would a typical Kenyan journalist sent to cover the Pakistan debacle, say, understand the nuances and unspoken norms of that society? Would he or she prepare an in-depth report that provided genuine new insights into the problems bedevilling Pakistan?”

We must also be careful of trumpeting the ‘Rising Africa’ story from the rooftops. These are early days, and I can’t help but notice the most vociferous voices that attack foreign coverage are the ones with much to gain and the most to lose from that coverage: those who need investment and tourism dollars to keep flowing in from the West. So, just as foreign editors may be invested in chaos stories, we have our own cheerleaders heavily invested in triumphant tales of silicon cities in a peaceful paradise.

Africa will indeed be just fine, eventually. But only by embracing the truth, not bias or hyperbole.

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