Does debate no-shows signal changing times for mainstream media?

The blatant refusal by the major Political parties in attending the Presidential debate has jolted the mainstream Media Houses. The media in our country is facing changed times from what used to be normal political discourse. The advent of Social media and other newsfeed outlets have completely altered the role of the traditional print and electronic media.

The effect of all this is that traditional media and newspapers don’t have the same gatekeeping powers they used to have. That division between entertainment and news is no longer something feasible and the media must now carefully weigh its role when it comes to the political campaigns reporting and engagement.

The major political parties are no longer focusing on the electronic and print media to pass their message. The Raila and Uhuru campaigns are strategically focusing on going direct, as historically social sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are becoming mature, and becoming legitimate channels of communication. These channels are real time and they bring the information raw from the sources.

Secondly, the media is facing what is being called the Trump effect. In the last American presidential election, the Republican candidate Donald Trump took on the media and made it an object of its campaign and succeeded.

Some experts in the media industry believe that Trump’s success can be attributed in part to a perfect storm of cultural shifts including a proliferation of media platforms and channels, the consolidation of media ownership, and the budgetary squeeze buffeting many news organizations.

Trump victory which was so surprising and unconventional has affected politics in very many countries. His vision was a vision of a white man’s democracy, in which white men had jobs, they received pride and dignity in their work, there was not very much immigration, you looked around you and it was a segregated world. This kind of campaign appealed to the majority of white voters.

The media didn’t realise this. In the course of his campaigns, Trump employed a rhetorical style that taps into Americans’ feelings of alienation, insecurity, fear, and nostalgia and succeeded. Kenyan politicians I am sure have been studying his style with a view to employing the same.

Thirdly, the rise of populism has given birth to unpredictable unconventional candidates. The surge of populism, Brexit, Trump’s victory and France electing a 39 year old young man married to a 64 year old grandmother are all testament that it is no longer business as usual with electorate.

This is perhaps the most critical departure from the way the world politics has been operating in the post-Cold War era. It has shown that the population rejects some of the main tenets of globalization, such as free trade and open borders, and sees little value in internationalist foreign policy and intellectual standing.

In Kenya, the media has come a long way since 2007. Needless to say, the Kriegler and Waki Report had indicted the role of the media in the 2007/08 post-election violence.

The two commissions found that even though the leading newspapers, television and radio stations were not very openly biased for or against any of the candidates, there were discernible preferences shown by the tilt they gave in favour of or against the candidates and their campaign issues.

Further, as election results started trickling in, the stations competed with each other to be the first to announce the results from various constituencies. Some stations relied on unspecified sources to broadcast and announce results ahead of the ECK. It is also true that most media houses avoided hate speech but several FM stations incited ethnic animosity, particularly during call-in programs.

Legislative framework

The Waki Commission specifically concluded that it believes that speech in the media, including in vernacular FM radio stations, aiming to foment ethnic hatred and/or incite, organise, or plan for violence should be investigated thoroughly in a timely fashion when it occurs. Submissions to the Commission called for legislative framework governing the media to clamp down on media misconduct and against hate speech.

The legislation mentioned in the Waki Commission is now in place and the chances that the media might repeat what happened in 2007 are fairly remote to say the least. The media must now grapple with a changed populace and a modern politician whose access to the voters is not necessarily through the mainstream media. He can meet his constituents in the twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube and Facebook which is more accessible to large majorities of Kenyans.

A presidential debate must be fashioned in such a manner that would attract the leading presidential candidates. This is easier said than done, but the media houses, their regulators and consumers must find how to confront these challenges so that we don’t lose a critical cog in our progress to a mature democratic country.

Mr Mwamu is the former President of the East African Law Society and an advocate of the High Court of Kenya