Kenya: Mass Martrydom Narratives Drown Out The Beancounting Angle


The Kenyan contender claims victory, appeals for calm

Suspicions of fraud were fueled by unexplained delays in tallying and anomalies that included a 115% turnout in one constituency. —W$J today

Moral crusades advance claims about both the gravity and incidence of a particular problem. They typically rely on horror stories and “atrocity tales” about victims in which the most shocking exemplars of victimization are described and typified. Casting the problem in highly dramatic terms by recounting the plight of highly traumatized victims is intended to alarm the public and policy makers and justify draconian solutions. At the same time, inflated claims are made about the magnitude of the problem. A key feature of many moral crusades is that the imputed scale of a problem … far exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence. — Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade,” Politics Society 2007; 35; 447

Too often, it is the media-created event to which people respond rather than the objective situation itself, as was the case when media provoked anxiety resulted in massive public rejection of food products reported as potentially related to an outbreak. Development of new approaches in mass communication, most recently the Internet, increase the ability to enhance outbreaks through communication. –Boss, Leslie P., “Epidemic Hysteria: A Review of the Published Literature” in Epidemiologic Reviews, Vol. 19, No. 2.

The following violations of the electoral code of conduct among other electoral malpractices form the core focus of the KNCHR election-monitoring project:

  • Misuse and misappropriation of public resources by either side of the campaign (public offices and buildings, public finances);
  • Participation of public officers (provincial administration, civil servants, heads of parastatals etc) in the campaigns;
  • Incitement to violence, incidences of violence; and
  • Use of hate speech particularly on ethnic and gender lines by politicians and the media.

–Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights report, December 2007 (PDF)

Daily Nation | LETTERS | This violence rocking Kenya could have been avoided: The first is of interest because it summarizes some factual claims that can be followed up on.

Particularly allegations of police involvement in electoral shennanigans of the lowest order:

The selfish greed of numerous police officers (silencing complaints by party activists), the Kenya Power and Lighting Company managers (who engineered the power cut), PNU party workers (who inserted fake ballot papers or figures) and ECK officials and commissioners who participated in the rigging of the results, which the ECK headquarters was unable or unwilling to identify and put right.

Those are serious claims that need careful investigation. Which press organizations are doing so at the moment?

The balance of international news reporting, as far as I can tell from a hasty canvas, continues to focus on terror, chaos and atrocities rather than on the mechanisms of the alleged fraud — most recently the burning to death of “dozens” in a church in Eldoret.

Sourced by the AP to “a police officer who was not authorized to speak to the press” who says that “several persons” burned to death. The W$J is citing “a Red Cross worker who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals” for a death toll of around 50.

In Brazil, Globo/G1 is citing a death toll of 30, based on AFP wire copy. Its value-add to that reporting was apparently to add the phrase banho de sangue (‘bloodbath’) to characterize the incident.

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From FT.com: If it bleeds, it leads, in bigger type.

We are also reading that the press is not authorized to speak to police officers. Or anyone, for that matter. What is the AP doing to mitigate the risks to their reporter in this situation, I wonder?

Some 3,500 news reports listed in Google News under the topic of apocalyptic violence, many from anonymous, mainly official, sources or not specifically sourced at all.

News about international and domestic challenges to the technical legitimacy of the election: Some 250 news reports listed.

This is a very rough, back-of-the-envelope way to measure coverage, of course, given the limitations of Google News. But at least Google News collects coverage in one place so that one can at least try to clip a representative sample and conduct a hard count for oneself.

Your assignment, citizen journalist, should you choose to accept it: What is the predominant emphasis of this coverage?

By and large, as far as I can tell, it overwhelmingly follows the “If it bleeds, it leads” principle, and characterizations like chaos and bloodbath abound.

In general, the international news media seems to prefer to dwell on anxious signs of the impending Armageddon, and in particular on individual, dramatic cases of sectarian (Christian-animist or Christian-Muslim, North-South, rural-urban, or tribe-on-tribe; the fuzzy socio-political explanations vary) violence.

(An exception: This filing from the Grey Lady’s man in Nairobi just now, which also narrates a touching scene of intertribal reconciliation.)

That story is, of course, eminently newsworthy — if verified. But in the middle of a news blackout, and given the apparently ambiguous role of police in this whole situation, you have to wonder if it can really be reported with the painstaking detail and caution required in coverage of incidents with such incendiary potential. See also

What I really want to see is an overall assessment of the extent of the violence. Is it localized? Generalized? Are these cases isolated? Are they really and directly related to the electoral dispute? I have yet to read about a reporter walking up to a rioter and saying, “So, why are you throwing rocks at the cops, anyway?” (Kenyans reportedly do not get along well with their cops for a variety of reasons not necessarily related to politics, according to a Commonwealth report I am in the middle of reading.)

Remember the rumor, spread by a Rwandan radio station, that the Tutsis had already killed 300,000 Hutus?

Before the genocide began, Rwandans chose to listen to RTLM in a relatively open and competitive media environment. After the genocide began, however, nearly all other media were silenced, which severely curtailed domestic transparency. Some Rwandans with short-wave radios could hear contesting descriptions of events, but RTLM challenged outside sources of information, telling Rwandans to ignore the “biased and ill-informed” reports. C. Kellow and H. Stevens cite the following RTLM announcement broadcast on May 14, 1994:

The RTLM broadcast in question:

This is nothing but propaganda from White people; we are used to it. However, we can still maintain that the inkotanyi [Tutsi cockroaches], wherever they have gone, have massacred the Hutus … after the 200,000 killed, the journalists say that the numbers rise to 500,000 killed. Where do these other 300,000 come from? These other 300,000 are without a doubt Hutu … This war we are fighting is an important one … it is, in fact, a war of extermination, a war started by the inkotanyi — because it is they who have started with the purpose of exterminating the Hutu.

See

The media has a responsibility here.

And I ask you, for international readers trying to understand the situation rather merely respond emotionally to it, in general terms — as a “humanitarian crisis” in the “disaster capitalism” mold — are the dramatic and bloody (supposed) consquences of the electoral dispute really 14x more newsworthy than the causes of the electoral dispute?

I think the foundations of moral crusade are being laid here, whether wittingly or out of the endemic intellectual laziness of the “buzz journalism”-evangelical content management brigades.

Our first letter writer to The Nation:

No one person could, I believe, do justice to the enormity of the situation which has unfolded.

However, one must make the effort, if only to rid oneself of the revulsion it engenders.

I find the outcome of the December 27 election incredibly depressing after such a wonderful show of fortitude and determination by the common people of Kenya and all but a handful of their elected representatives – a paradox of all that is finest and most despicable in this beautiful country.

The Positive:- Kenyans, in unprecedented numbers, turned out and waited for hours to cast their votes for the parliamentary and presidential candidate of their choice.

The media laid on a highly efficient information network to enable them to relay up-to-the-minute parliamentary and presidential results to their newsrooms and thence to viewers.

See

Voters, in all but two of the country’s eight provinces, resoundingly showed the door to several Cabinet ministers and a large number of the incredibly greedy individuals who seemed to form the majority of the Ninth Parliament.

In their place, they voted in 97 members of the main opposition party (ODM), in contrast to about 65 for the loose coalition of government parties (PNU).

The Negative:- The total failure of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, as a body and Mr S. Kivuitu, as its chairman in particular, to control the blatant rigging of the election, centred in Meru (where there was a two-hour power cut during the vote counting), effected by inflating the number of presidential votes cast.

This was highlighted to ECK local and headquarters representatives by ODM party workers in several Mt Kenya constituencies (not just Meru).

A similar stratagem is highlighted by the European Union Monitoring Team in Molo, actually quoting the figures by which President Kibaki’s votes were inflated.

The selfish greed of numerous police officers (silencing complaints by party activists), the Kenya Power and Lighting Company managers (who engineered the power cut), PNU party workers (who inserted fake ballot papers or figures) and ECK officials and commissioners who participated in the rigging of the results, which the ECK headquarters was unable or unwilling to identify and put right.

The parliamentary results say it all, ODM have a massive majority in the 10th Parliament.

No sane person could believe anyone who voted for an ODM parliamentary candidate did not back Raila Odinga with their presidential Vote.

So the presidential result is a sham.

BRIAN R. WILLIS
Nairobi

Second letter, calling for deescalation of the political dispute for the sake of easing social tensions:

I am a registered voter in Nairobi’s Kamukunji constituency.

I voted for ODM in both the presidential and parliamentary ballots.

I guess, however, this does not matter for various reasons, chief among them that the poll in Kamukunji has been cancelled and because it was a secret ballot.

I thought I had a powerful tool, my vote, but this has been vanquished at the stroke of a pen and whiteout. My voice has gone unheard and now I am being asked by my friends to not take it personally.

I am taking it very personally, as are millions of other Kenyans. The lives already lost are not worth the one life of those politicians that we were voting for; both the victors and the losers.

However, I have a humble request to Raila. You did ask Kibaki to be the bigger person and concede defeat. He didn’t and he isn’t. I now extend the same request to you to be the bigger person for the sake of peace and posterity.

I ask that you lead us into salvaging a fragile peace rather than salvaging the presidency.

CHRIS LYIMO,
Nairobi

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