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Kenya's foreign press pariahs and zombie scribes



The of Kenya's largest newspaper March 4, 2013. (Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star)

 "Any journalist worth their salt should start feeling itchy when praised by those in authority," writes author and journalist Michela Wrong in an excellent blog about reporting Kenya's election last week. 

Wrong, who has covered Africa for nearly two decades, laments both the backlash against foreign scribes, as well as the malaise of the local press - whom she greatly admires - but says it was transformed for the elections into a "zombie army."

To step back, some history:

In the last election five years ago, various media outlets were blamed for stoking the violence that followed the contested vote and resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200. Joshua arap Sang, the owner of radio station Kass FM, has been indicted by The Hague's International Criminal Court for allegedly airing hate speech to incite ethinc tensions.

Kenya's government spokesperson was none too subtle in his warnings to the media in the lead up to the March 4th vote. "We will set you on fire before you set us on fire," Muthui Kariuki told a gathering of international press in January.

Foreign journalists carried on, but what turned Kenya's normally fiesty local media into what Wrong calls the "zombie army," was a code of unprecedented restraint. Kenya's Media Owners Association told The Associated Press' Jason Straziuso that there was "gentleman's agreement" among media bosses to not air any political statements live, or publish "inflammatory statements."

It is understandable, or even as Straziuso calls it, "a noble goal," given how desperate everyone was to avoid the horrors of five years ago.

But did the self-censorship go too far and what does that mean for the future of Kenya's journalism?

There were some insightful columns, but the live television coverage, was bizarre to watch: a 24-hour live scroll of vote tallies set to an excrutiating superhero soundtrack that looped over and over and over again, broken only by equally numbing roundtable discussions where analysts spoke in hypotheticals.

Was this what election and government officials praised (which as Wrong says, should make them get a little itchy, especially since the election did not go as smoothly as many Kenyans may have believed)?

Political analyst, Ken Opalo told The Independent's Daniel Howden that he believed the self censorship went "too far," while the Committee to Protect Journalists' Tom Rhodes reported that not all local journalists were happy with the gentleman's agreement, but frustrated by "editors who cull(ed) their stories in the name of maintaining peace."

It's no wonder in contrast the foreign press appeared as dangerous naysayers, accused of hyping the threat with a-need-to-feed-journalism-speed. There were some examples of questionable reports, but it was "foreign press" in general that was targetted. On Thursday, the information ministry warned that foreign journalists would be prosecuted or deported if they did not have proper work permits.

Intimidation of the foreign press hurts all media in Kenya - and is especially tragic when the local press has fought so hard for the independence they normally enjoy.

Wrong and others are also asking if the self-censorship impacted the election itself? Without fullsome coverage - including allegations of vote rigging that prompted the running mate of presidential candidate Raila Odinga to call for a recount - were Kenyans may have been lulled into a sense of security through distorted facts ... and a superhero soundtrack?

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm





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