January 13, 2008
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:
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
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
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.
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 jihadists 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
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!"
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