How (not) to report on Kenya’s elections


Kenyans vote today (in some places voting have already started). And somehow, as in any election in any African country, the cliches are not far behind. “Will Kenya fall into mayhem after the results of the general elections are announced?” “Will one of (East) Africa’s most politically stable countries see a return of post-election violence that swept through the country five years ago?” “Has tribalism been eradicated in Kenya?” We can’t count how often international reporters have asked these questions in the past days. Like French soldiers in the northern Mali, journalist of every major international broadcaster and some even of tiny national news organizations have parachute landed in Kenya ahead of the general elections. Some of them, even if they won’t admit it, secretly hope to see a bit violence, albeit skirmishes. Some American outlets have taken six month old political violence and presented these as happening right now. Journalists love the rush and a little ‘war reporting’ most definitely won’t hurt the career; it looks good on a CV. Reporting ahead of Kenya’s election by the international media can basically be placed in two general categories: optimism and, of course, no surprise, pessimism. 

Both these have their ready-made storylines and characters: ‘Optimistic reporting’ looks at the dozens of grassroots peace initiatives such as the peace concert in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. And a visit to Boniface Mwangi, Kenya’s young critical visual activist, should not be forgotten see here and here.

‘Pessimistic reporting’ tends to be more ‘serious’, or at least it’s journalists taking themselves serious. With reports by human rights organizations that predict violence in hand, they demand answers of government officials. Like when leaflets promoting hate speech was found in the western city of Kisumu. In the words of the international reporters, a city that was the epicenter of the violence five years ago. Or was it Eldoret? Or the entire Rift Valley? Either or, journalists went to the city on the banks of Lake Victoria demanding an explanation by the local authorities. But an own investigation into the origins of the pamphlets, seemed a bit far-fetched. Keep in mind, a warm meal and cold Tusker beer were waiting in the four star hotel.

Then there’s CNN’s decision to do a story on those threatening to commit acts of violence during the elections. At least on paper that is. On Thursday the global news organization posted a news report entitled: ‘Armed as Kenyan vote nears’ (link to the video). Reporter Nima Elbagir ventured to the hills of the Rift Valley where she met four men basically playing around in the bushes. It’s all presented like some kind of moral panic. Anyway, the reporter talks to the leader of this so-called Kikuyu tribal militia, whose face is covered with chalk and talks about preparing for war because they want peace. Do you get it? Elbagir then interviews another man, a farmer, who lost his property in the wake of the violence in 2007. He pledges, unlike the men in the bush, not to retaliate, because he has nothing to fight for. We then cut back to the militiamen rolling around in the bushes seemingly preparing for ‘war’.

Since the news report aired,  the reaction to the report has been negative — especially by Kenyans who have responded with fury at the CNN report, poking holes in the story: who do these men represent? Who are “the tribal leaders” Elbagir allegedly spoke to? And what report by Human Rights Watch is she quoting? Kenya’s online community has since revived a popular hashtag #SomeonTellCNN. And the reactions are not mild. For example, “CNN is a disgrace to professional journalism,” @oxford92 tweeted. Someone else, @HudsonJoel wondered whether it’s possible to have CNN banned from Kenya because he doesn’t want rubbish.

Others retweeted a picture of a toddler whose face is covered with chalk with the tag saying: ‘ready for CNN’.

The Kenyan government even thinks that the video was ‘stage managed’.

Since then, CNN has responded to the row saying it’s a well-sourced story and that the story has been placed in context as potential threat of violence has been well documented by Human Rights Watch and the Kenyan Police.

It is clear that the majority of Kenya’s online community stands up against the way international broadcasters report on their country. That’s a possible story CNN might chase after the elections. But then CNN has done this before.

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13 thoughts on “How (not) to report on Kenya’s elections

  1. I was so bothered by that CNN report, amateurish and poorly sourced, thinly reported. I am proud of Kenyans for not letting CNN get away with it. I hope that today’s vote and the probable run-off election later proceed fairly and with minimal violence. But if not, it won’t be because of four guys with pangas and home-made guns rolling around in the woods.

    • We as Kenyans want nothing but peace and to get back to the swing of things. Thank God there will be no run off the people have spoken and we have demonstrated that we have matured and we can conduct ourselves as a peaceful nation. We have also shown that we consider Mr. Ocampo’s investigations and subsequent findings bogus

  2. @Noel, yes I know… ‘White man’s burden’ and all that! It’s time you realized how old and worn that narrative is. Slavers used it to justify their actions for 400 years! The CNN story completely missed the hugest event happening in the country the same day it was reported; a peace rally with all presidential candidates publicly affirming their commitment to a peaceful elections. Sadly for the western war correspondents, the Africa of today is mostly rather boring, with little to sell bylines with!

  3. Whatever happened to all the old-time ethical journalists, those that reported the facts as a story and not created stories as fact. Used to be a time that a person became a journalist as they wanted to know the truth themselves and share whatever truth they found with their fellow man but now, with so much of the mainstream media tied up in so few “one percenter” hands, journalists are chasing that Pulitzer so that they may get recognition and that cushy job in a cushy office.
    One has to consult various cyber news sites before one even gets a small idea of what the truth may be.

  4. Good story. Anyone who takes CNN seriously as a source of news needs their heads examined. As egteSafrican points out, this is about taking your work as a journalist seriously: fact-checking, double checking, multiple sources. Africa is no different from anywhere else in that respect. It should not be treated as some exceptional case by journalists covering it. Having said that, there are Africa’s own news outlets who are not exactly helpful either, thriving on sensationalism themselves. Oh and Mody Y, can you tell me what the East African (and thus mostly Arab-dominated) slave trade has to do with how the West covers Kenyan elections? Less hyperbole and more accuracy, please. That applies to commenters as much as to the reporters.

  5. Perhaps if you look as the poem white man’s burden as a reflective of an old colonialism mentality that flows in the sub conscious of both the negative and positive mainstream coverage of Africa you’ll see it.

  6. kenya is a sovereign state n western countries should stop dictating us,we all learned n mature enough to handle our own issues…CNN respect us

  7. Serious iregularities that seems 2be man made will be addressed in court,so dont be toooo much optimistic not forgeting that every person is passing this world since it is not our home,are u aware? Take what is truely 4u and contrary 2that u must bare the consequences if not on this earth then in heaven.B LIV ME.

  8. to some point after reading serginho’s article and looking at this from a ‘trying- to- aspire’ journalist point of view i can find it in my global and understanding humanity to see why the cnn reporter would go so far as to create such a clip that would way more on their being a post election violence, i mean after watching the situation being taped and covered by reporters in syria it would be logical that some reporters unable to catch the action there snoop it somewhere else in the world however what infuriates me is why in bloody hell would you poke at the already existing tension that has been in the air since the 2007 post election violence…… i live in kenya and i can tell you its one thing to cover a war and another to live in it .treating it like its a road to a promotion is inhuman , stupid and should be in some sense a criminal act. They are familes and countrymen working day and night in different levels of society trying to avoid the violence that not only caused a huge plunge in the economy but caused hundred of thousands of citizens to be displaced…….the most terrifying fact however is that if this is the way reporters search for stories globally this days then i must say kenya feels very safe all of a sudden.

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