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Why mainstream media are under pressure in coverage of ‘Israel war on Hamas’

The decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict has erupted once again, with the mainstream (mostly Western) media taking the blame for biased reporting, which critics say is in favour of Israel. This is not the first time the Western press has been accused of such.

To understand the origins of the bias and the raging blame game now playing out on social media and other news outlets such as Al Jazeera, it is imperative to note a few things.

First, there’s a general decline in news consumption on traditional media platforms, partly due to what experts call news fatigue. More importantly, the rise of alternative media platforms backed by social media has meant audiences no longer have to sit and wait for television anchors and radio presenters to break news for them. In this digital age, news comes to the consumer, not the other way around.

Second, mainstream Western media are known to have a historical and deep-seated bias in their coverage of people they deem inferior to them. There’s always the master-native type of reporting whereby the master (mostly white) proclaims to know better than the ‘native’ (mostly people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia).

This fact is well documented by media scholars, with Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman taking the lead in their classic book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988).

Singling out American media outlets for playing the role of a propaganda mouthpiece on behalf of the Western empire, it’s no surprise that CNN and The New York Times, as well as the BBC and DW, have come under intense criticism for not interrogating Israeli narratives and versions of events concerning the Hamas surprise attack on southern Israel on October 7.

Back home, the legacy media have also come under immense pressure, especially from the Kenya Kwanza government. This came to a head when the ruling party asked the media to deny coverage of the waves of anti-government protests called by the Azimio la Umoja coalition over the high cost of living and calls to audit the August 2022 general election.

Like in the Israel-Hamas War, the contention is about phrases and words. The medium is the message. So, the question arose, should they be called ‘Azimio protests’ or ‘anti-government protests’? The former obviously tried to echo the government narrative that the demos were motivated by bitter Azimio leaders and their fanatical followers and had nothing to do with unbearable economic times.

On the other hand, ‘anti-government protests’ widened the scope of the grievances and tensions by exploring the underlying contentious issues of steep commodity prices, unemployment, Kenya Kwanza’s failure to honour its many promises and police brutality, among others.

Now, let’s come back to the criticism of the Western media.

The BBC has been at pains to explain to its audiences spread across the world why they refrain from referring to Hamas, a Palestinian resistance group (another contested phrase), as ‘terrorists’. On October 16, protesters converged at the media organisation’s headquarters in London, UK, to express their displeasure.

The media organisation has argued that they are trying to be as objective as possible in their coverage of the sensitive conflict. What the BBC is trying to say is that they leave it up to their audiences to decide whether the recent actions of the Palestinian militant group amount to acts of terrorism or genuine resistance against occupation.

This is a critical lesson for Kenya’s mainstream media. Objectivity, however, does not mean a news outlet cannot take a side or offer a rigorous analysis of complex issues that would lead the audience to make their own independent conclusions.

Another significant lesson is to always provide context for issues – be they political, social or economic. Take, for instance, the persistent eruption of clashes at Sondu along the Kisumu-Kericho border.

The conflict has been going on for close to three decades. It means the people living along the border did not start to fight yesterday. The mainstream media should take time to explain the root causes of the intermittent clashes even as they report the ongoing fighting to help the relevant stakeholders find a lasting solution to the conflict.

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