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Political Neutrality Flew Out the Window
By Philip Ngunjiri, IPS, 12 January 1998
NAIROBI, Jan 12 (IPS) -- One feature of last month's general elections which most Kenyan will not miss, is the bold, but not so sophisticated propaganda machine of the ruling party, and opposition groups' attempts to sell their own messages through alternative media.
Bogus non-governmental organisations (NGOs), research groups, and new media in the form of publications and pamphlets, sprouted up overnight in the run-up to the elections, and many have just as quickly disappeared from the scene.
"I was perplexed at the timing and the speed with which these groups, which were pro-establishment (government), came into existence," said Shem Ochuodho, an opposition parliamentarian.
Until the elections were on the cards, organisations like the Friends of Kenya (USA) and the University of Nairobi Network Association, for example, were relatively unknown to the majority of Kenyans. Using the official media as their outlet, these organisations vigorously campaigned for the then incumbent Daniel arap Moi, who won the polls.
"Having followed their outbursts in both the traditional media and on the Internet, I feel they had better call themselves 'Foes of Kenya', rather than anything else," Ochuodho opined.
Several opposition newspapers began during the period leading up to the elections too, but many of these publications have since died a natural death.
For example, the weekly 'Horizon' newspaper, which first hit the news stands last July, was linked to Raila Odinga, the National Development Party's (NDP) chairman, who finished third in the presidential race. The paper has already closed shop and some of its former employees are seeking legal redress for unpaid salaries.
Last October, Kenyans also found 'Dunia', another weekly closely associated with some dissenting elements within the ruling Kenyan African National Union (KANU), on the streets.
And the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DPK), Mwai Kibaki, who finished second in the presidential poll, received the backing of a small newsletter known as 'The African Confidential', which was issued for free just a few days before the elections.
The country also witnessed the sprouting of vernacular -- mainly Kikuyu and Luo -- publications. These publications were in opposition to the ruling party.
One of the Kikuyu-language papers, 'Mwihoko', is published by a Catholic diocese, and is edited by a priest, Father Peter Muiruri. According to Muiruri, the paper has a popular appeal, because it is written in the vernacular and its information therefore reaches more people. "There is nothing politicians fear more than grassroot empowerment," Muiruri said, dismissing claims that the paper is a front for ethnic interests.
Meanwhile, the results of a post-election media survey for the Media Institute by the privately-own company, Strategic Public Relations and Research Limited, reveal that the mainstream media's coverage during the elections was largely pro-KANU and pro-Moi.
In the run-up to the elections, Kenya's official media had claimed impartiality, arguing that all political candidates had access to the media to air their views. But the survey points out that KANU was always featured in the media, and that opposition parties were portrayed negatively, especially in the broadcasts of the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
Coverage of KANU was more than twice that of the four major opposition parties -- the DPK, the NDP, Ford-Kenya and the Social Democratic Party -- combined.
"Statistical data revealed a tendency by the mainstream print and electronic media to tone down criticisms of President Moi's actions and statements, but they tended to be acerbic in their analysis of opposition parties' leaders, speeches and activities," said David Makali, the director of Kenya's independent Media Institute.
KANU and Moi, according to the media survey, dominated KBC's prime-time news broadcasts, and nearly 50 percent of the space devoted to presidential candidates by the major newspapers -- 'The Daily Nation, 'East African Standard' and the 'Kenya Times' -- was given to Moi.
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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