Hoodwinked: International Coverage of the Crisis in Kenya
On Monday, January 7, Elizabeth A. Kennedy of Associated Press filed a report, "Kenyan Rivals Make Concessions". It included the following paragraph:
"An official in neighboring Uganda said over the weekend, 30 fleeing Kenyans were thrown into the border river by Kenyan attackers, and were presumed drowned. Two Ugandan truck drivers carrying the group said they were stopped Saturday at a roadblock mounted by vigilantes who identified the refugees as Kikuyu and threw them into the deep, swift-flowing Kipkaren River, said Himbaza Hashaka, a Ugandan border official. The drivers said none survived, Hashaka said."
The next time I crossed the Kipkarren River which is in walking distance of my house, I saw that this "deep, swift-flowing" river was a rather placid, slow moving pool of water since there hadn't been any significant rain for over two months. If you threw me off the bridge into the water, I would have just stood up and walked up the bank. Moreover the "border river" is about 75 miles from the Uganda border and much closer to Eldoret than Uganda. Therefore it is not a river on the border.
If this story had been true, it would have been one of the biggest massacres in the current violence in Kenya. Even though the story was fabricated, it was passed on by at least CNN and Time. I have never seen any reference to it in the Kenyan media.
This ought to be a red flag not only for coverage of the recent events in Kenya, but overall coverage by the international media in Africa.
There are two stereotyped images of Africa. (1) The African is a happy, over-sexed, singing/dancing simple person who, as I was once told, "can't think in the abstract". The "noble savage" who has not been corrupted by the wantonness of Western Civilization is one sub-image of this. The media's obsession with the AIDS epidemic in Africa is another. (2) The African is a superstitious, violent savage full of ancient tribal hatreds. The current reporting in Kenya reinforces and is confined to this image.
Of course, people these days are too nice and they don't write this so crassly. The fact that it is done subtly, frequently by unwritten assumptions, makes it even harder to detect unless one is extremely critical of everything one reads.
Let's move on to another example. I'll leave it up to you to decide. Here is a January 7 story from Agence France Presse, titled "Police cheer as Kenya's witch-wary looters return war spoils."
"Dozens of looters who profited from Kenya's post-election unrest began returning or dumping their ill-gotten gains around the port city of Mombasa Monday, frightened of cursed goods, police said.
Television footage showed fearful, if not shameful, looters and their accomplices returning beds, sofa sets and other items after rumours that victims had deployed witch doctors to punish the thieves."
The Kenyan papers had other explanations for the return of the goods. First, the government had declared an amnesty period of two days during which anyone who returned looted goods would not be prosecuted. This was reinforced by the Imams who preached in their mosques that people should return stolen goods. The fact that this peacemaking effort by the Moslems also contradicts the violent jihadist stereotype that Moslems are not peacemakers is perhaps why this was omitted from the "witchcraft report." Christian preachers also advised the return of stolen goods. The Kenyan reports had no mention of the alleged witchcraft.
Now let us turn to a Christian Science Monitor article by Bob Crilly on Jan 9, "Kenyans forced to flee violence find ways to cope." The author interviews a man in Kericho who lost his wife in the violence after the election. The official count is that 486 people died--these numbers come from the people who died in hospitals or whose bodies were brought to the hospitals and morgues at the hospitals. It is likely there were many others who are therefore uncounted in this tally. As you read the articles, you assume that these were Kikuyu killed by their neighbors.
The Kenyan papers on the other hand were covering the clearly innocent people (a fifteen year old girl, a small boy) who were in the hospital in Kisumu after being shot by the security forces. The biggest "massacre" during the violence was the 43 youth rioters killed by the police in Kisumu during the weekend after the election. Kenyans are worried that a violent police state is being imposed on Kenya. Somewhere between a half and three quarters of the people killed were killed by the police and therefore were not due to "old tribal hatreds"! Have you heard this "take" on the events in the international media?
As things have calmed down, I have started seeing references in the Kenyan press about the biased, terrible coverage of this crisis in Kenya. So beware the next time you open up a newspaper or watch a news broadcast on TV about Africa. You are being told what the media thinks you want to hear and see.
As one American commented to me about the coverage of Kenya, "There was enough scary black faces in the coverage!"
Today is Sunday, so I guess I am entitled to preach my sermon.
David Zarembka, Coordinator
African Great Lakes Initiative/ Friends Peace Teams