Media / Watchdog
Thursday, 22 Dec 2016 15:55 EAT
The Kenyan media's obedience to political power was evident this week following the events in Parliament where opposition MPs disrupted debate into the controversial amendment of electoral laws. Following the disagreements, Mbita MP Millie Odhiambo walked out of the chambers in protest and derogatively called President Uhuru Kenyatta a "fool, thief and hyena" among other insults.
The MP's comments received top coverage in broadcast and print media, triggering a social media campaign by the president's supporters calling on her to respect the presidency. All too right. However, not mentioned in the articles was an important context: That as political insults go, President Kenyatta himself has been leading from the front. For weeks now, the president has called opposition leader Raila Odinga names, and not a single media house rose up to challenge his language.
Perhaps encouraged by the media denunciation of Ms Odhiambo, the president yesterday sent the MP a Christmas in which he sounded fatherly and conciliatory, making Ms Odhiambo appear like the fool in the exchange between the two. The media, as expected, went overboard in its praise. The Nation, the Standard and the Star all carried contents of the message in different platforms.
The People Daily's article, 'Uhuru returns love for Milie's insults" went beyond its call of reporting. The report indicates that the president was obeying Biblical teachings, specifically the book of Romans 12:17-21 which asks believers "not to repay evil for evil...but overcome evil with good". While it is expected that a newspaper owned by the president himself would support his gimmickry at good behaviour, the paper surely went out of its way to confer divine guidance on the president's kindness.
To its credit, the Star moderated its coverage of the Christmas card with a main headline report indicating that president, contrary to the kindness of the letter, had indeed answered Ms Odhiambo's insults with his own insults. Presiding over lighting the KICC for the festive season, the president had said, according to the Star: "On our left is the National Assembly representing democracy, but it has also given some idiots the ability to keep insulting me."
The media can be a powerful actor in checking hate speech and policing political dialogue between leaders. But to do so it needs to exercise its hands evenly to avoid any perception of bias. In the present case, media didn't need to go back in history to find ways of balancing the story on the Uhuru and Millie insults. As the Star report indicates, the president's address was full of derogative terminologies even as he presided over the launch of a VW assembly plant in Thika.
Credibility is more important for media now than before, as Kenyans themselves have a platform to illuminate the shortcomings of not only their leaders but also how the media reports them. Yesterday after the president's letter, Kenyans took to Twitter. A user calling himself 'Just Thinking' wrote: ‘that’s absolutely wonderful....Love is stronger than Hate……’’ Another, Achokor P. Jeff, wrote: ‘Pay evil with good. Thank you Mr. President for humiliating the arrogant lady in a kind way. Merry Christmas Kenyans."
There are also Kenyans who feel that the card served no purpose considering the remarks the president made thereafter. Charles JB on Facebook says, ’The card doesn't matter this is what he said in reply and the 'idiot' part make him the same as her: "To my left is the National Assembly representing our democracy with the ability of idiots in there to continue insulting me but it's their freedom."
The whole letter that has generated too much heat is also, after all, a traditional ritual in which the president writes to all Members of Parliament to wish them a happy new year.
The writer, an experienced journalist, is a contributing reporter for the Kenya Free Press