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Chebukati’s woes, BBI and media that won’t interrogate Baba

Wafula Chebukati was an angry man last week. Twice in a day he “was forced” – as Kenyan journos like to report – to issue clarifications about matters at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission he chairs.

On October 29, Chebukati issued a statement about a “sensational and alarming headline in the Star newspaper”. The top story said, “Two dead, 12 critical as corona hits IEBC”.

“Two Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission staffers have died while 12 others are fighting for their lives after they were infected with Covid-19,” the Star reported.

“Their colleagues are in panic and have accused the management of forcing them to go to work yet the offices have not been fumigated.”

Lion Place cited a memo to staff by acting IEBC chief executive officer Hussein Marjan who said for over a fortnight, the commission had been overwhelmed by infections.

“In the last two weeks, more cases of Covid-19 related infections have been reported in the commission leading to hospitalisation of the infected staff and leaving some in very critical condition,” Marjan said.

This is a properly sourced and factual story, isn’t it? But later that day, Chebukati said the story was “sensational, alarmist and lacking in facts.”

He confirmed that two staff members had died of Covid, but denied anyone was in critical condition or fighting for their lives as Lion Place reported.

But, surely, the acting CEO of the electoral agency Marjan is an authoritative source. Chebukati did not deny Marjan’s reported words.

His criticism of the Star is therefore unfair and portrays the IEBC chief as dishonest. Between him and Lion Place, who is misleading the public?

Chebukati was the subject of some bad press the same day. If you were a news editor who, between Chebukati and ODM leader Raila Odinga, would you put on the headline about a matter they both spoke about?

Raila. If Chebukati announced he was quitting and Raila welcomed the decision, Raila leads. If Raila said IEBC should be disbanded and Chebukati said no, Raila leads.

And so it was, that on October 29 Raila issued a “hard-hitting” statement dismissing the IEBC’s claim that the commission would need a “whooping” Sh14 billion to conduct a referendum on the BBI. That is what the commission told Parliament.

Raila said a referendum would cost no more than Sh2 billion. How he arrived at that figure, no one knows. A story carried by Citizen Digital under the headline “Raila rubbishes IEBC’s Ksh.14B projection, says referendum will cost Ksh.2B,” reported the ODM leader’s statement only – no context or a word from IEBC. That is not balanced reporting.

The story on KTN News had Raila’s allegations and Chebukati’s detailed clarification. Ebru TV reported a similarly balanced story.

The Standard on October 30 carried the splash, “Raila goes for IEBC”. The story had both sides of the debate on referendum costs, but it was Raila’s claims that were given far greater prominence. His quotes were highlighted in bold.

Between Raila and the IEBC, who is better placed to know the cost of a referendum?

The final paragraph of Raila’s statement was hardly reported, yet it is hugely significant. “Shortly, we will pick a team to sit with IEBC and itemize what will lead to a cost-effective referendum exercise and elections. IEBC seems determined never to develop [an] operational performance that contains costs,” he wrote.

Who is “we”? Isn’t this intimidation? What does Raila think about independence of constitutional institutions? Of course the media won’t interrogate Raila. He is always right.

“No, baba can’t be everywhere dictating what should or should not be done, when, where and how,” Standard writer Alexander Chagema commented on Facebook. “There are institutions legally mandated to do that, and others to whip those institutions back into line if they step off.”

We agree.

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