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Conflict sensitive journalism missing in coverage of Kisumu-Kericho ‘ethnic clashes’

“Professional journalists do not set out to reduce conflict. They seek to present accurate and impartial news. But it is often through good reporting that conflict is reduced.” – Howard Ross, My Tribe is Journalism (2008)

Citizen TV aired a report on Sunday, August 20, about violent conflict in Nyakach subcounty on the border between Kisumu and Kericho counties. Two people were killed “following clashes between youths from two communities,” the station reported.

Two days later, the Nation published online a story titled, “Two killed, eight injured in Kisumu-Kericho ethnic clash.”

The story said, “Tensions that have been simmering along the border over the last three days over alleged cattle rustling have now erupted into a full-blown ethnic armed conflict that has claimed two lives – all from the Kisumu side.”

Clashes between two communities? Full-blown ethnic armed conflict?

A Standard editorial called the incident a “flare-up of ethnic tension” (August 23, p.12). The editorialists discounted cattle rustling as the cause, stating confusingly that there was more than met the eye.

The same day, the Daily Nation had a report headlined, “Leaders call for deployment of military as attacks persist”. The entire story, like the one on the Nation website the previous day, covered voices from only one side: Kisumu. Kericho side was effectively portrayed as the aggressors.

What is an “ethnic” or “community” conflict? Why would a clash between two individuals or groups, for whatever reasons, be framed as a conflict involving the larger groups with which they identify, in this case their communities? Why are such groups or individuals almost always never labeled by their other identity markers, say religion, gender, or class? Why community/ethnicity?

If you report that a fight between two groups is “ethnic” or “community”, you are effectively inviting members of those communities wherever they are in the world to take sides in the conflict. If it is, indeed, a “full-blown ethnic armed conflict” between Community A and Community B, that means everyone who identifies with these groups, even if they are not physically in Nyakach, will feel affected by it. ‘Our people are being killed by the other community.’ See?

Get the facts. Speculations and innuendos fuel conflict. Accuracy is the first cardinal principle of journalism, and “there could be more than meets the eye” is not an accurate description of the cause(s) of a conflict already mislabeled as “ethnic”.

But there is a lot more than just getting the facts. Howard Ross’s handbook, My Tribe is Journalism, was written immediately after the post-election violence in Kenya following the 2007 disputed presidential election. We recommend it to all scribes.

“The news we report can be destructive for a community by promoting fear and violence. Or our news reports can be constructive by making citizens better informed, and possibly safer by also reporting on efforts to promote conflict reduction. This is conflict sensitive journalism,” Ross writes.

How is conflict sensitive journalism done? Ross offers a useful nine-point checklist:

  1. Avoid reporting a conflict as consisting of two opposing sides. Find otheraffected interests and include their stories.
  2. Go beyond the elites. Avoid defining the conflict by always quoting the leaders who makefamiliar demands.
  3. Avoid only reporting what divides the sides in conflict. Ask the opposingsides questions which may reveal common ground.
  4. Avoid always focusing on the suffering and fear of only one side. Treatall sides’ suffering as equally newsworthy.
  5. Avoid words like devastated, tragedy and terrorised to describe whathas been done to one group. These kinds of words put the reporter on one side.
  6. Avoid emotional and imprecise words (assassination, massacre, genocide). Do not minimise suffering, butuse strong language carefully.
  7. Avoid words like terrorist, extremist or fanatic. These words take sides,make the other side seem impossible to negotiate with.
  8. Avoid making an opinion into a fact. If someone claims something,state their name, so it is their opinion and not your fact.
  9. Avoid waiting for leaders on one side to offer solutions. Explore peaceideas wherever they come from.

In a nation riven by sharp and sometimes bloody identity politics, journalists must be cautious around emotive labels like “ethnic clashes” that are guaranteed to deepen community divisions, distort, and worsen conflicts by bleeding afresh historical traumas, and reinforce walls of communal insularity that block the attainment of national unity.

See you next week!

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