You may think you are in control, after all, that is what they want you to think. Every five years, you line-up in long queues as you wait to cast your vote for your next president. Something tells you undeniably, that you know who the winner will be. It’s too obvious. Whichever way you vote, the outcome will be the same. The face on every screen, every newspaper, every billboard; the name of everyone’s lips and t-shirts. “Now, vote!”
The media has a profound role in influencing elections to a point that it has become a political entity in its own right. It lays out the rules of election etiquette and generally sets the pace and the political atmosphere during the election period. This essentially puts the media in a unique ‘middle-man’ position as they alone can manipulate both the behavior of political candidates as well as the attitudes of the voters.
Kenya’s political landscape has morphed since independence from a de facto one party state, to a multi-partisan democracy with nearly 50 political parties and 10 with representation in parliament today. The presidential tenures of Jomo Kenyatta and Moi were characterized by stringent control of the media (more so in Moi’s regime) with government owned media such as Voice of Kenya and The Kenya Times. Today government control is less evident, yet private and foreign owned media conglomerates such as Standard Media Group, Nation Media Group and Royal Media Services harbor allegiances with specific political parties. Their bias becomes evident.
The problem has always been that mainstream media has never belonged to the kawaida mwanainchi, but to a few individuals. Media conglomerates need to make a profit from their various publications and broadcasts, otherwise their businesses would become obsolete. Money is generated from advertising as well as owner and political interests who in turn make a profit from high viewership. We are the viewers, and without us, big business media would cease to exist. Media owners are endorsed by political parties to facilitate their campaigns by focusing on certain issues which they deem most important. This is then dispersed like a farmer would sow his seed, through mass media to even the most remote locations. But unlike the farmer who nurtures his seed until it flowers, the media does not. It is effective in telling us what to focus on, but less so in communicating what to think about it. We are left little choice but to be blind-folded by media reporters and editors who should know better!
The media has the power to greatly influence the public by limiting the coverage of certain candidates. They can choose to cover only the politicians they feel are legitimate candidates and have a good chance of winning the election, for example during the 2012-13 Kenyan presidential race, majority of the mass media featured Jubilee candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM candidate Raila Odinga more than any of the less popular candidates such as Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua. It just so happened that the favored candidates had truckloads of shillings budgeted for paid (and free) media. Thus the media acts as a sieve, filtering out unpopular candidates and giving more coverage to the better-known, thereby narrowing the voter’s choice to the media favorites. In this way, the electorate is given an illusion of choice.
Mass media has the unmatched ability to perpetuate violence. The advantage is obvious – messages can be transmitted far and wide. Nations have been left devastated and crippled from election-related violence which to the most part, were caused by irresponsible journalism. In Kenya 1,300 people were killed in the 2007-8 post-election violence, which saw over 300,000 Kenyans displaced from their homes and destitute. Mr. Joshua A. Sang, former vernacular Kass FM radio presenter is currently under trial at the ICC for spreading hate speech that propagated the violence. As a journalist, one must, above all, remain neutral.
Majority of public opinion is born and shaped by the media. We, the electorate, without realising, are in total control and should determine media content and political discussion. In the case of elections, it is the reverse: the media sets the agenda for political discussion by raising issues which they think the we should focus on. This ‘spotlight’ effect is used by the media to also dictate the criteria by which we should use to judge candidates. Public opinion polls is campaign propaganda put in a mass media context. The media arouses public interest in elections by making them entertaining and dramatic, emphasizing on conflict, their uncertainties, the wealth and future fortune of the winner. They draw personality sketches of the candidates and and mould the way we view them. Even campaign reporting uses a language similar to that of sports and military action – “the next move”, “counter-attack”. They have our undivided attention.
Mass communication thrives on paid advertising, it has biases which is continually gobbled-up by the likes of you and me – people who have grown fickle in an age abundant with information and infinite possibilities. We are to blame for letting our guard down. We have let ourselves down, and only we can make it better. We, the people, reporters, editors, photographers, producers, media moguls and everybody in between – because without a media that is fair and conscious of the needs of the people, democracy may become a dream of days past.
In the words of *Will McAvoy “…nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate. We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context…We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense”.
As the fourth estate, the media has a responsibility to its citizens. We need complete, unbiased information about political candidates and their policies so that we can vote with clear judgement.