As Kenya goes to the polls on 4 March 2013, the question uppermost in the minds of many, both locally and abroad, is this: if the election result is disputed, will the country slip into the kind of mindless violence witnessed after the election in December 2007?
Besides those who orchestrated the unrest five years ago – politicians and the now defunct electoral body the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) – the media has also been blamed for its sins of commission or omission in fanning the deadly ethnic fighting that followed the announcement of the presidential results.
Indeed, journalist Joshua Sang, a morning presenter with vernacular Kalenjin language station Kass FM, is facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, alongside presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, his running mate William Ruto, and former head of the civil service, Francis Muthaura.
Whether Sang is innocent or guilty of using his position at the radio station to incite members of the Kalenjin ethnic group to forcefully eject non-Kalenjins from the multi-ethnic Rift Valley region is beyond the point. As witnessed in Rwanda in the 1990s, the radio and other media are tools clearly able to reach the masses and can therefore be used by evil, careless or naive people with devastating effects on the wider society.
Kenya has numerous vernacular radio stations and people fear that it is these that could be used to incite hate against communities and candidates in a country where political discourse is defined by ethnic group.
While TV stations, national language radio stations and mainstream newspapers have been fairly restrained in their coverage of the political campaigns, or at least have not openly shown bias or painted certain candidates negatively, the same cannot be said of vernacular radio stations.
My mother tongue is Kikuyu, so it is only the Kikuyu-language vernacular stations that I can understand. There are three main ones in Kenya: Kameme FM, owned by the Kenyatta family’s Media Max Limited; Inooro FM, owned by media tycoon Samuel Kamau Macharia; and Cooro FM, owned by the state’s Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation.
While Inooro’s owner Macharia has openly declared his support for Raila Odinga’s presidential bid, there is no evidence of openly biased reporting or skewed messages of hate about his main rival, Uhuru Kenyatta. Cooro FM has also striven to be neutral but since it has such a low audience, few are likely to notice.
The same cannot be said for Kenyatta’s Kameme FM. As any listener will confess, the station goes out of its way to paint political rivals as evil, unworthy Kenyans capable of no good. During most of its news and call-in programmes you can hear language that plainly borders on hate speech.
The station is most notorious in the mornings, the most popular time to listen to the radio in Kenya. Presenters set the pace, talking only in negative terms about Kenyatta’s competitors, while inviting views from listeners.
It gets worse: the hosts fail to moderate audience comments and carelessly air dangerously tribal and hateful views. It fails to appreciate that in Kenya a candidate is never seen as an individual, but as representative of his or her ethnic group.
It is stations like this one that I fear may, if not tamed by authorities, be used more to fuel violence than to mediate dispute should one arise.
My analysis does not in any way exonerate other, non-Kikuyu, stations. It is not lost on me that the Standard Group media houses, including Standard newspaper, KTN TV and Radio Maisha, and Radio Africa’s Star newspaper, have shown an open bias toward Odinga’s CoRD alliance – but that is not to say they have used a dangerous risky tone which could jeopardize Kenya’s chance of a peaceful election.