Let me start today’s discussion by painting a familiar interview scene on a Kenyan news cycle. A journalist has landed an exclusive interview with a politician. The venue is either the politician’s mansion or a luxurious hotel. The interviewee is much older and wealthier. He is more articulate and has a better grasp of history than his interlocutor. The politician oozes confidence while the journalist’s physical attitude conveys unease.
The politician is a better debater than the journalist. The politician is patronising while the journalist punctuates his every sentence with “Mheshimiwa” or “Excellency”. The power dynamics by far favour the politician. The interview becomes less of an exchange of views between two equals and more of an address by the politician with helpful promptings by the journalist. The interview does not canvass alternative narratives, it legitimises a particular narrative.
Listeners do not get a complex and nuanced understanding of issues, but a one-sided and simplistic version of events. Instead of the interview holding the politician to account, it instead serves to launder him. Instead of the interview expanding our knowledge of history, we are served propaganda.
By contrast, interviews in other jurisdictions are a debate between two equals. For instance, in interviews with Trump-era officials, journalists would counter alternative truths and falsehoods with facts and history. They would present counter narratives to Trump’s simplistic, narcissistic, jingoistic, and paranoid view of the world. The interviewers would push back eloquently and knowledgeably on falsehoods presented by Trump’s spin-doctors. They asked difficult questions and held officials to account. By so doing, the interviewers gave listeners alternative views, a more complex rendition of history, and a fact-based understanding of their interviewees and the issues.
In our context, politicians can attribute a community’s economic or social challenges to the evil doings of this politician or his community. We hear politicians say that prosecution of thieves is persecution of their ethnic group. We read of tribal ideologues telling their people that if so-and-so gets power, it will be the end of their community. We are constantly reminded that the political ambitions of some are sanctioned by God while those of others are inspired by the devil. In this politician’s Alice-in-wonderland world, former Kanu apparatchiks style themselves fighters for equality and human rights.
We learn of these wild claims, revisionist histories, misrepresentation of facts, selective historical references, inciting tribal propaganda, pathological lies, etc, at political rallies. Mostly, however, we learn of them through the media. The media has become less a filter of propaganda and toxicity and more their purveyor.
In addition, Kenyan media are unable or unwilling to reframe the terms of the political debate. So media analysis is about who is more likely to get what percentage of what ethnic vote. Nothing at all about the personal characteristics and personal histories of those who aspire to lead.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator