Alphonce Shiundu Kenya’s media battles fake news as the general election beckons

With the country’s general election less than 90 days away, the political ramifications of a cocktail of fake news, misinformation and propaganda worries Kenya’s mainstream media.

Kenya’s media landscape demonstrates an explosion of false stories spread by people for clicks online or kicks offline. Sometimes, it purely for political propaganda.

A popular comedian, Gideon Ndambuki (aka Churchill), was reportedly killed in a car crash, or so bloggers said. A former cabinet minister, keen to become the governor of Busia county, woke up on the day of party primaries to false headlines proclaiming his defection to the ruling Jubilee Party, which is unpopular in his region. The media house that supposedly announced the news issued a rare statement distancing itself from the hoax.

Pressure to break news of primary winners

“Fake news is a real problem in Kenya,” held Linus Kaikai, the chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild at a meeting in Nairobi to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2017.

Kaikai told dozens of journalists, editors, media lecturers and government officials why the vetting of sources and information should not be sacrificed on the altar of being fast and first.

With party primaries recently taking place in Kenya, there has been significant pressure on media managers to “break news” declaring winners. Kaikai was called the night before and told an aspirant for a parliamentary seat in Nairobi had been declared the winner by his party’s appeals board.

The caller wanted to know why the “hot news” was not on air yet. As the head of the broadcasting division of the Nation Media Group, Kaikai called his newsroom. Nothing like that had happened.

Learning from Trump?

Kaikai noted Kenyan politicians were perhaps learning from the attacks on the media by Donald Trump, the Republican candidate who went on to become US president. Some Kenyan politicians are now using the same script to “disparage, discredit and delegitimise the mainstream media”, with one MP, Moses Kuria, shouted “f*** you” to an NTV journalist on camera.

The wide consensus was that the ecosystem of fake news was thriving because of the hydra-like nature of the digital grapevine, especially when it comes to spreading unverified “news”.

“Fake news gets its power from just how quickly it spreads,” said Churchill Otieno, the Nation Media Group’s editor for online and new content.

‘Shift focus from soup of half-facts & many lies’

From left to right: Dr Julius Bosire of the Technical University of Kenya; Ezekiel Mutua, the chief executive of the Kenya Film Classification Board; Churchill Otieno, managing editor online and new content at Nation Media Group; Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a satirist from Botswana and Rachael Nakitare, of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Photo: Alphonce Shiundu

The meeting was a rare occasion where the essence of fact-checking in journalism was discussed side by side with key issues such as media freedom, independence of journalism and the safety of journalists.

In a panel discussion moderated by Dr Nancy Booker of the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School for Media and Communication, the emphasis was on fact-checking every statement that politicians will make during the election season; perspectives on taming hate-speech and the value of pursuing counter-narratives in journalism as well as how all these fit into the quest for a free media.

“The role of the media must be seen in the light of fact-checking to stop propaganda and fake news,” said Ochieng’ Rapuro, the managing editor of the Business Daily.

While the government had insisted on responsible journalism and reminded the media professionals about their “patriotic duty… to hold the country together”, the people gathered held they are warriors for truth and facts.

“Everyone is talking about the media keeping peace. But peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice. We require a slightly different kind of journalism to tell the country where it is going,” said Rose Lukalo of the Media Policy and Research Centre.

“We have to shift focus from this soup of half-facts and many lies… It will require naming and shaming and juxtaposing the statements made, with facts,” she said.

Interestingly, Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a satirical writer from Botswana, told the editors and journalists gathered that perhaps they could learn from fake news.

“One thing that fake news [websites] do that traditional media doesn’t do is to explain complex issues in a simple way,” said Siyanda. “The thing with fake news is that it is so easy to digest.”

Africa Check will do our bit

The thing about false information and the internet is anyone can click share, retweet or forward “as received” without verifying.

Africa Check will continue – specifically through its weekly fact-checking slot on KTN in Kenya — to educate media consumers about being smart online. And through regular fact-checking reports, we will play our part in keeping politicians honest this election season.

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