NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — It's the biggest news of the year in Kenya: A presidential election with huge potential for violence. Why then are the headlines so boring, the TV broadcasts so dull? The answer: Kenyan media are self-censoring the story to avoid fanning the flames of conflict.
Kenya's Media Owners Association told The Associated Press that media leaders made a "gentleman's agreement" to balance the national interest and the public's right to know, including not reporting anything that could incite ethnic tensions and not airing political statements live.
It's a noble goal. After Kenya's 2007 president vote vicious tribe-on-tribe violence killed more than 1,000 people. Small bouts of violence have been reported in Kenya in the days after Monday's presidential election, though the country has remained largely peaceful.
But media self-censorship raises concerns about the public's right to know.
"The editors are not allowing inflammatory statements to get into the newspapers," said Kenfrey Kiberenge, a reporter for the Daily Nation, Kenya's most widely read paper. Kiberenge said there was a deliberate effort to avoid what he called "inflaming passions."
Media messages that incite violence have been a deadly problem in Africa. Rwanda's 1994 genocide was preceded by ethnic hate speech and accusations on radio and in newspapers. After the 2007-08 election violence in Kenya, the International Criminal Court indicted radio broadcaster Joshua Sang, whom the court accused of coordinating a campaign of killing.
"We actually made a mistake in 2007 as Kenyan media," said Dennis Okari, a TV reporter for KISSTV, who noted that many media outlets are owned or overseen by political leaders.
"At that time many media houses had actually taken sides. Some were supporting (Prime Minister) Raila Odinga, some were backing (President) Mwai Kibaki," he said. "We were partly blamed for the postelection violence. This time things have been done a bit different."
Okari said the Media Owners Association decided that media outlets would broadcast a message of peace this election, and that all stories must be checked to ensure they aren't inciting violence. TV stations, he said, have agreed not to put statements by politicians live on air, in case they contain a dangerous message.
Kiprono Kittony, the chairman of the Media Owners Association, said he thinks the media has done a "fantastic job" keeping the public informed without compromising peace and security.
"Article 34 of the constitution has given media freedom and we contend that freedom comes with responsibility, which is what we are doing, being responsible," he said.
Tom Rhodes, East Africa's representative for the Committee To Protect Journalists, said he fears such censorship will lead to the Kenyan public not being adequately informed. In some cases, he said, keeping the peace has trumped the truth.
"While it is commendable that the Kenyan media is taking precautions this time around to ensure not to incite any violence through sensational reporting, many local journalists that I have spoken to express their frustrations over their editors who cull their stories in the name of maintaining peace," Rhodes said.
Okari acknowledged that such self-censorship is a thin line for journalists to walk. On the one hand you are trying to ensure coverage doesn't kick off violence, on the other hand journalists have a duty to inform the public, he said.
The role of local and international journalists in Kenya's election has been actively discussed on Twitter, where many Kenyans blame international media for sensationalizing the story. Okari took to Twitter on Thursday and said: "As a Journalist i refuse to be used to INDIRECTLY send a mixed message to an intended audience in the name of Public Knowledge/Information."
The 2008 government report reviewing the last election found that violence was fanned by live radio talk shows in which DJs were unable to control guests using hate speech. Words and phrases such as "let's claim our land," ''mongoose has come and stolen our chicken," and "get rid of weeds" were aired, the report said.
Haron Mwangi, the chief executive of the Media Council of Kenya, said journalists underwent more training on media ethics and social responsibility ahead of Monday's vote. Kenyan reporters and editors are being more balanced and analytical, he said. He said he had heard of the Media Owners Association decision.
"Given the context of the Kenya situation, I think it's fair," he said. "For Kenya the best thing now is we want peace, we want things to normalize, we want to continue with our lives, and that's the quest Kenyans have now. And if the media is responding to that public interest I think that is good."
Violence by a separatist group on Kenya's coast on Monday killed 19 people. But those deaths weren't even mentioned on the front page of the Daily Nation. David Matsanga, who runs a media consultancy called Africa World Media, said newspapers are doing a better job of focusing on what he called the big picture.
"They have done a good job to some extent, for example by pointing out the weaknesses of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission," he said, before noting he believed presidential candidate Raila Odinga has gotten more coverage than his opponent, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Final results in the election are expected to be announced on Friday.
Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza contributed to this report.