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Assuming three things: that ethnic tensions between Indians and Africans are worsening; that a significant contributor (some would say the main contributor) is politics; and that mainstream mass media remain a legitimising conduit for racial rhetoric, is it time for media leaders to agree on self-censorship in their coverage of racially provocative statements/events?
We have come through a divisive and desperate Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election which will be remembered for Hilton Sandy’s Calcutta ship announcement, the failure of his PNM party to censure him in an unprecedented way, and the Government—under the banner of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP)—milking it for all its political poison. And that’s only one very recent event. We wait in trepidation for local government and general elections.
The country is at a crossroads, saturated with discontent and resentment. Trauma at the loss of political reins is raw among some Africans and translates—in uniquely Trinidadian terms—as “Indians taking over,” which in turn draws from the equally unique Trinidadian proverb “Indians have land and money; Africans have political power.”
The present Government, meanwhile, promised a coalition that represents and treats equally with all peoples but quickly turned into a UNC Government consumed with old racial prejudices and a rabid desire to equalise government patronage by unethical means. That the UNC found a new face and voice to spew old prejudices born of self-hate has been a handful of salt in racial wounds.
All this is happening in a climate of exceptional violence, short tempers, unending cries for justice, and plenty, plenty guns. Is it time, then, for mass media to prevent circulation of news that can potentially incite that which I will not name but which most of us fear?
It is a matter for discussion if not resolution. I share in journalists’ instinct to steups at the mention of censorship, even self-censorship, as I know that the media already exercise a fair amount of self-censorship. I also know that in the absence of information from authorised news sources, there are many other sources of information and that rumours will likely fill that absence.
And if we don’t carry the news, how will the public be informed, would media still attract lucrative advertising money from governments and political parties, and how practical is media self-censorship when media owners themselves have political affiliations, some to the extent that they help fund political campaigns?
But an agreement to self-censor by media owners in Kenya for this month’s general election reflects some eerie similarities to T&T’s circumstances.
Two days after Christmas in 2007, 14 million registered voters in Kenya queued to cast their votes. By New Year’s Day the results were called; a slim majority named incumbent Mwai Kibaki as president. Within 15 minutes he was sworn in; many believed the message was pre-recorded. The Opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and its supporters reacted and within hours, protests across Kenya turned ugly and tribal: the ruling Kikuyus were attacked by mainly Opposition Luo and Kalenjin peoples.
Economic activity ground to a halt, tourists abandoned vacations and Kenya imploded in unprecedented violence. In the international media, Kenya’s descent looked like civil war in any other African nation, but Kenya had been stable since its independence in 1963. By the time the violence ended in early January, more than 1,200 people had been burned or hacked to death and 600,000 displaced.
A 2008 government report reviewing the election found that violence was fanned by live radio talk shows in which hosts were unable or unwilling to control guests using hate speech. Comments such as “Let’s claim our land,” “Mongoose has come and stolen our chicken,” and “Get rid of weeds” were aired, reminiscent of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which was preceded by ethnic hate speech on radio and in newspapers.
Some politicians paid radio and TV callers; working with unethical journalists, these callers’ extreme views were given much airtime. The International Criminal Court has indicted radio broadcaster Joshua Sang for co-ordinating a campaign of killing during the 2007 election.
Some of Kenya’s over 20 TV and 120 radio stations are owned either by politicians or businessmen beholden to politicians. In 2007, media houses took sides and newspapers and TV stations fired workers of different ethnic groups. Media houses published columnists who secretly worked for politicians but who were not so identified, and journalists received stipends from politicians to cover them favourably and malign opponents.\
For the March 4 election this year, the Media Owners Association decided that media outlets would broadcast messages of peace, and that all stories would be checked to ensure they were not ethnically inflammatory. TV stations agreed not to put statements by politicians live on air, in case they contained a dangerous message.
The Media Council of Kenya trained hundreds of journalists in media ethics and social responsibility ahead of the vote and almost all of Kenya’s TV networks confined themselves to relaying the results from the electoral authority one constituency at a time and avoided making projections.
The consequence of that decision to self-censor meant there was no coverage of the killing of 19 people in Mombasa by a separatist group on election day, nor were the dramatic events that unfolded during a marathon ballot-counting covered. When the running mate of second-placed Odinga called a news conference to complain that results were being “doctored,” no networks relayed it live.
It made for boring media, but great social good. The Kenyan media took a collectively progressive decision, but not before ethnic rage had already boiled over. In T&T, we may want to consider a similar decision ahead of that which we fear but which I will not name.
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