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Media must guard against perceptions of bias in presidential poll coverage

A senior counsel protested weeks back that a certain media house had “degenerated into Pravda, the old Soviet Union mouthpiece that delivered propaganda content completely disconnected from reality”.

Pravda (“Truth” in Russian) was founded in Vienna in 1908 by Marian Melenevsky, a leading Ukranian social democrat. The newspaper’s iconic founding editor was the indefatigable journalist, orator, author and communist ideologue Trotsky. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin, Pravda became the official organ of the Russian Communist Party for 73 years, from 1918 to 1991.

The senior counsel was upset that the media house he castigated carried openly partisan coverage of the ongoing presidential election campaigns.

At times like now, accusations of media bias fly right, left and centre. It is a permanent feature of every election. Under the Moi dictatorship, the complaints were entirely targeted at KBC. The state broadcaster had become the ruling party Kanu’s mouthpiece and held full sway before liberalisation of the airwaves in the mid-90s.

The architects of the Moi autocracy knew well the power of sustained state propaganda in a closed nation with limited independent sources of information.

Private media – and particularly the crusading alternative press – was always aligned with the Opposition, as were civil society, religious organisations, trade unions, professional bodies and student organisations.

Today, the lines are blurred. We live in surreal times when the Opposition is in government and a section of government behaves like the Opposition.

The streets – those sacred sites of democratic intercourse, a sure sign of civic health – are quiet. Nothing much to write home about civil society, or the church. Unionists, professional associations, intelligentsia, university students long gave politics a wide berth or, to be sure, have willingly been co-opted by the ruling class.

If the media mirrors society, then it is no exaggeration to say that a far more robust and independent media existed during the struggles against the Moi dictatorship than today, under a new constitutional order. A more sobering irony of history is hard to come by.

So, one is not quite sure what to make of the senior counsel’s comparison of a certain media house to the Soviet-era Pravda. Or last week’s protest by Deputy President William Ruto’s presidential campaign team.

A statement by campaign spokesman Hussein Mohammed accused Citizen TV, Inooro TV, Inooro Radio and the Daily Nation of bias in favour of Azimio La Umoja coalition.

“Under the current partisan media environment, we have advised our candidate against participating in the presidential debates,” Hussein said on June 2. The debates start next month.

While the attempt to connect the presidential debates to the alleged media partisanship is bizarre, given the independence of the ongoing preparations, there are necessary questions that must be objectively considered: Are certain media houses openly biased in their political coverage, Pravda-style? Yes. The Media Observer has highlighted some instances of skewed reporting.

On May 28, Nation Media Group chairman Wilfred Kiboro, possibly aware of these concerns, said Kimathi Street is committed to upholding the highest level of professionalism in election coverage. CEO Stephen Gitagama has said that, “For citizens to make well informed choices, there must be a free, reliable and trusted media”.

Citizen TV and Inooro Radio and TV are owned by Royal Media Services of media mogul SK Macharia. He openly supports Azimio La Umoja and its presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

In April, the Media Observer stated in an editorial that SK Macharia’s political choices raise ineluctable and urgent ethical questions for Royal Media Services and its journalists. We called on the media house to clarify the issue. It hasn’t.

On social media, some tweeps yell: If you don’t like the coverage, what stops you from changing channels or, better still, starting your own media house?

This view is mistaken. Journalism is privileged and protected by the Constitution. It is a professional activity guided by law and ethics.

As an institution, the media is a public good. It serves democracy by providing citizens with reliable information to make important decisions about private and public affairs. And, as a public watchdog, the media holds power to account.

This basic mandate demands that the Fourth Estate is independent of all partisan interests to serve the common good. A media house is free to take a political position, but that is no licence for biased coverage.

Unlike Soviet-era Pravda, our journalism must strictly follow the straight and narrow cannon of professional ethics, regardless of the political inclinations of a media owner or individual journalists. The alternative is loss of public trust.

See you next week!

1 thought on “Media must guard against perceptions of bias in presidential poll coverage”

  1. Victoria Shira

    As much as Chebukati says they are ready he is lying to Kenyans lfor instance in the previous elections we have witnessed what happened during and after election due to lack of a proper system to be followed, nothing will be different now come 9th August 2022.
    The body should cease from been Independent and source for other bodies to assist them come with a proper data system management

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