East Africa’s media grapples with a myriad of challenges whenever general elections approach. Not only do editors struggle with balancing the competing political interests, at times at the altar of professionalism, but individual journalists pay dearly, many suffering attacks in the course of their duties.
As the clock ticks towards Kenya’s General Elections set for August 9, 2022, so does the media continue to feel the heat with politically orchestrated attacks targeting individual journalists and media houses becoming more pronounced.
However, this is not isolated to Kenya but is a common denominator across East Africa’s three states. A closer look at Uganda and Tanzania reveals that journalists constantly have to watch over their backs during elections, with some of them suffering online and physical attacks.
In Kenya, for instance, the situation has been alarming, forcing the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) to release a statement after two lawmakers attacked Citizen TV, Kenya’s leading television network, over its editorial coverage.
“The Media Council is concerned about the increasing incidence of profiling of and threats to individual journalists and media outlets by politicians related to 2022 General Elections campaign,” the council said. It also noted that such threats are likely to incite the public and political supporters against the media and may thus expose journalists and media practitioners to violations of their rights as they go about their rightful duties.
“Attacks against and intimidation of media contravenes Article 34 and 35 of the Constitution on the Freedom of Media Access to Information,” MCK CEO David Omwoyo said.
He singled out the recent verbal attack against Citizen TV by Kapseret Member of Parliament Oscar Sudi, whose social media post was accused of targeting the media house. In addition, the remarks by his South Mugirango counterpart Silvanus Osoro also castigated the media for alleged bias in reporting.
MCK wants aggrieved Kenyans to seek redress through the council’s complaints commission.
Apart from threats to media houses, attacks on individual journalists perceived to be leaning towards a specific political camp are common in Kenya.
For example, in October 2017, at the height of general election campaigns, Citizen TV’s political editor Francis Gachuri was attacked by goons when he went to cover the National Super Alliance (NASA) press briefing at Wiper Party headquarters. The incident forced the NASA leader, who was then the coalition’s presidential candidate Raila Odinga, to issue a public apology.
Fast-forward to March 2022, reporters covering a press briefing at the Orange Democratic Movement Party headquarters were roughed up by the party’s security men, forcing the party to issue an apology.
The incident happened during a meeting convened by Azimio La Umoja coalition presidential aspirant Raila Odinga at Chungwa House. Security men mishandled Standard journalist Moses Nyamori. It is believed the attack had to do with a story that did not sit well with the party’s top guns. Star political writer journalist Luke Awich had his phone’s screen smashed in that same scuffle.
Uganda: Journalists targetted on and offline
In Uganda, the picture is not rosy. Last year, as President Yoweri Museveni, 77, and the 40-year-old opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine, tussled for Uganda’s top seat, the media was caught in the crosshairs.
State-sponsored actors targeted several journalists, while other reporters became victims of online attacks.
Culton Scovia Nakamwa, a BBS TV news reporter, knows the perils too well. She was tasked with political reporting as Uganda went into general elections last year. President Yoweri Museveni’s rule came under fierce challenge from opposition chief Kyagulanyi.
“There were both online and physical attacks; these threats were directed at me,” Cultom said, adding that he encountered sources and even politicians, some operating within the state organs.
“Some scare you to go slow (on a political story you’re pursuing). If you highlight stories of what the government hasn’t done you are labelled to be campaigning against a particular candidate.”
She recalls that the online attacks included body-shaming the journalists and even stereotyping.
“I got calls, some of them coming from unregistered numbers. This meant we had to cover our backs and be very cognisant of whom you meet.”
Cultom had to self-censor to mitigate the threats, a trait she says most of her colleagues also employed.
Journalists face threats in Tanzania
Tanzanian journalist Ephraim Bahemu told the EAST Site that reporters who cover political stories face constant threats.
“The politically instigated attacks are common among journalists and media houses, many at times it is built on false claims against journalists that they are biased against a particular candidate, they do this by profiling the targeted victims,” the Dar es Salaam based journalist lamented.
According to the Yearbook on Media Quality in Tanzania, published by the University of Dar es Salaam, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, it is clear that media houses and journalists grapple with how best to remain professional, balanced and accurate in their reporting during elections. They also struggle with dealing with the threat that comes with the heightened political heat, more so from state actors.
The report noted that media coverage in Tanzania was mainly skewed in favour of the late president John Pombe Magufuli. He had enjoyed massive space in print and broadcast media. The watchdog report stated that editors were wary about how to treat certain political stories due to the perceived consequences from the powers that be.
Self-censorship out of fear
“Additionally, Magufuli was covered significantly more on the front pages at 77 percent in the print media than in the inside pages at 65 percent. For Lissu(Tundu), there was no significant difference in coverage between the front and inside pages at 40 percent and 34 percent,” the report noted.
Some of the editors interviewed in the report admitted that fears of the unknown might have slanted their political coverage.
“The environment (political) was (rather)unfriendly, which forced us to write public relations stories, not quality reporting. There were big stories we could have done during the campaign period and on voting day, but we were afraid to take this bold step,” the report quoted one senior editor.
Another editor elaborated: “Freedom of expression was locked into a wardrobe. Media houses and editors published cosmetic stories as they wanted to save their media from being penalised.”
The editor went on to say that information was heavily controlled, and editors foresaw this trend before the elections and took a careful position not to broadcast or write every truth.
Self-censorship was at its peak during the elections. Media houses, for example, ended up dropping big stories because they could not get the right people to offer expert opinions, mainly when the story was critical of the government.
This lack of expert views weakened the stories and made them too risky to publish under the prevailing political climate. Eventually, self-censorship had extended to the journalists’ sources, which further eroded the quality and authoritativeness of their electoral reportage.”
Delicate balance needed
While condemning the attacks on media practitioners, the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) Chairman Oscar Obonyo told the EAST Site that politically instigated attacks on journalists are uncalled for. He demanded stronger punitive measures against the perpetrators.
“This (attack on journalists) is a major concern to us. We’re only doing our duty as journalists, and it’s not right that we’re subjected to this (harassment) every five years,” Obonyo said.
“There will be winners and losers in every election and journalists’ safety is key,” he added. The veteran journalist said KUJ has called on the security apparatus to ensure journalists are safe. “However, politicians also need to be engaged, they need to know that ours is just a noble duty, we’re just relaying the information.”
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