Sunday, December 30, 2007

violence and voting

So I was about to write a post arguing that western media coverage of Kenya's election has been overly quick to emphasize the "chaos" and "rigging", as typical of the way that African politics are presented in the west more generally. I was going to argue that while this might be the case in some localities, the majority of Kenyans were abstaining from violence, and that western reporting has missed the nuances of what I think is going on there (based on conversations with friends and coverage by excellent local blogs such as kenyanpundit and mentalacrobatics) Then I saw this truly chilling footage from Kisumu (an opposition stronghold near Lake Victoria in the west of Kenya), which was posted to youtube by NTV (Kenya's leading TV network):

Not that this changes my mind to believe that everyone, everywhere in Kenya is taking to the streets, and that the (other) country I love will be reduced to a pile of rubble very soon. But it did convince me that where it is bad, it is REALLY bad. I generally resist phrases such as "chaos", "disorder", and "anarchy" as being used to freely- yet its hard to think of other descriptors when seeing these images of people passing household appliances out of windows. It also reminds me of just how high the stakes are-everyone in Kenya needs to be proactive against mob justice or opportunism or thuggery or tribalism- if those who thrive on violence are allowed to dictate the tone and pace of the next few days, things could go in a very bad direction.

However, since I set out to pick a bone with the western Media, that's what I'll do ... watching the kisumu footage also confirmed my previous hunch that categorizing all of what is going on as "ethnic violence" (as has been typical of most western media coverage) is a bit misleading. Watching this footage, what you see are not running battles between mobs from different groups or ethnic sloganeering, but mostly people taking advantage of confusion to gain personally- i feel like this is most summed up by the footage of the guy calmly lacing up his brand new sneakers. Not that I can claim to be a sociologist of the riot, but from what I've read, this does seem to fit- people might take part in a violent mass event for any range of reasons- indignation at a political process that isn't working as it should, the excitement of smashing shit up with a large crowd of people, the opportunity to get some free stuff while evading arrest...

In contrast, I think western media coverage has tended to really play up the "ethnic passions" angle- and not just because that's what whey're saying (although it is what they're saying). Take a look at these two photos run by the New York Times in their last online article on Kenya

In both, the impression is very different from what you get from watching the Kisumu footage- they single out individuals, holding violent weapons, with symbols of destruction and disorder in the background - it strongly evokes the image of individual passions- of primitive violence. To be fair, both of these images are from kibera, where the violence has been described as ethnic clashes from a number of sources, but I think the stakes demand more nuanced reporting, both on the variations in the nature of violence across kenya, and in the distribution and character of non-violence. I think the kenyan blogosphere has done a good job with this, but I agree with Mentalacrobatics, who argues that more people need to start speaking up. In addition, it is well past time for the mainstream media to follow their lead.

Lumping all of the violence in Kenya as "ethnic" is not only inaccurate, it has the potential to set off a spiral whereby media coverage creates a self-perpetuating cycle- violence breaks out, is labeled tribal, stokes tensions and brings more people onto the streets, generates more alarmist reporting (especially from western papers), and so on. Now is the time to break the cycle.

1 comment:

Laia said...

hi Ryan, thanks very much for your posts on the topic. as you can imagine, i really enjoy getting insights from a country expert like you.

i agree with you in that it is a total mistake to classify the violence as ethnic without enough information/without a real knowledge about it. the problem comes from the fact that western media needs simplification, and it is much easier to explain ethnic violence than more complex type of conflict/confrontations. but the problem is that while creating labels or emphasizing them, a "self-fulfilling prophecy" can take place. the use of labels is always consequential, and western journalists should act with extreme responsibility on this.
hope things will get better in Kenya, and looking forward from more information from you and the alternative sources you are guiding us to.