Let me start today’s discussion with a familiar interview scene in a Kenyan news cycle. A journalist landed an exclusive interview with a politician. The venue is either the politician’s mansion or a luxury hotel. The respondent is much older and wealthier. He is more eloquent and has a better understanding of history than the person he is speaking to. The politician exudes confidence, while the journalist’s physical posture conveys discomfort.
The politician is a better debater than the journalist. The politician indulges himself while the journalist underscores each of his sentences with “Mheshimiwa” or “Excellency”. The power dynamic favors the politician by far. The interview becomes less an exchange of views on an equal footing than an address by the politician with helpful suggestions from the journalist. The interview does not raise any alternative narratives, it legitimizes a certain narrative.
The audience does not receive a complex and nuanced understanding of problems, but a one-sided and simplistic version of the events. Rather than holding the politician accountable, the interview is more about washing him up. Instead of the interview expanding our historical knowledge, we are served propaganda.
In contrast, interviews in other jurisdictions are a debate between two equals. For example, 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 worldview. The interviewers would eloquently and knowledgeably reject the falsehoods presented by Trump’s spin doctors. They asked difficult questions and held officials accountable. In this way, the interviewers provided the audience with alternative views, a more complex rendition of the story, and a fact-based understanding of their interviewees and the problems.
In our context, politicians can attribute the economic or social aspects of a community to challenges to the evil Actions of this politician or his community. We hear politicians say that the persecution of thieves is the persecution of their ethnic group. We read of tribal ideologues who tell their people that when one or the other comes to power it will be the end of their community. We are constantly reminded that the political ambitions of some are approved by God, while others are inspired by the devil. In this politician’s Alice in Wonderland world, former canoe apparatchiks refer to themselves as fighters for equality and human rights.
We hear about these wild claims, revisionist stories, misrepresentations of facts, selective historical references and inciting tribal propaganda, pathological lies, etc. at political rallies. Most of the time, however, we hear about them through the media. The media has become less of a filter for propaganda and poison and more of its suppliers.
In addition, the Kenyan media can or want to redefine the terms of the political debate. Media analysis is about who is most likely to receive what percentage of which ethnic votes. Nothing at all about the personal characteristics and personal histories of those who seek to lead.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator