Nairobi, Kenya. According to a recent study, a single copy of a daily newspaper can be read by up to 14 readers. Photo: Irene Yacobson.

Bloggers and online commenters renew media criticism

New forms of media criticism are gaining ground in countries such as Kenya and South Africa. The Twitter hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN prompted US news channel CNN to back away from identifying Kenya as a “terror hotbed”. And before elections in Kenya in August, male dominance of expert panels on television was challenged with the hashtag #SayNoToManels.

“New technology has changed the traditional system for media accountability. Bloggers and commenters on social media analyse and criticise media ethics and practice”, says David Cheruiyot, visiting researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute.

Cheruiyot is exploring ways to discuss and regulate journalism in Kenya and South Africa, countries with comparatively broad, diverse and free media.

“Despite little resources, the audience is very news hungry. According to a recent Kenyan study, a single copy of a daily newspaper can be read by up to 14 readers.”

Independent watchdog organisation Freedom House ranks the two countries highest in Africa in terms of freedom online and relatively high in terms of freedom of the press. Both countries have media councils, ethical codes and news ombudsmen. The self-regulatory system is most developed in South Africa. But in the past 10-15 years criticism through the internet has gained an increasingly important role.

“Kenya has one of the most active blogospheres in Africa. At the outset, media blogs like Media Madness and Jackal News were mostly about gossip from the newsrooms. But media ethics and journalistic errors soon became important issues”, says Cheruiyot.

Many are critical of the way CNN incorporates negative ‘truths’ about Africa

The highly influential hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN has been used in connection with several news stories in Kenya. Commenters use it to highlight what they consider to be exaggerations or misinterpretations by the news channel.

“Besides commenting on concrete journalistic mistakes, many are critical of the way CNN incorporates negative ‘truths’ about Africa in their reporting, clichés that portray Africa as the Dark Continent.”

The hashtag generated over 200,000 tweets in connection with then US president Barack Obama's visit to Kenya in the summer of 2015. According to a US security expert CNN interviewed, Kenya was more insecure than Afghanistan and the country was identified as "a terror hotbed". After a Twitter storm, CNN changed the story’s headline and content. The CNN global executive vice-president Tony Maddox even flew to Kenya to personally apologise to President Uhuru Kenyatta for the story.

The hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN forced CNN to apologise.

The popular hashtag #SayNoToManels criticised the significant male dominance of expert panels on television before the Kenyan elections in August 2017. The media's role in elections has been high on the agenda since the 2007 polls, which were followed by extensive unrest, with over 1,000 deaths. Journalists were accused of fanning hatred between ethnic groups. As a consequence, reporting on the elections in 2013 and 2017 was deliberately cautious. But was it too cautious?

“Media entered a ‘peace mode’ that incited a reverse discussion: many bloggers and commenters claim that the media have refrained from reporting about injustices and wrongs committed in the election process. Keeping the peace became more important than justice, according to the critics.”

One of the strongest critics is blogger Patrick Gathara, who also argues that the media should have taken steps to independently verify results from the election in August. He is a regular guest on the biggest television channel NTV's media debate programme, Press Pass. Competing channel KTN has a similar morning programme, News Room.

“Such TV shows, as well as the fact that bloggers like Gathara are invited, indicate that public interest in media criticism is increasing. But the question is whether this criticism affects journalism practice.”

The actual causality is difficult to determine, so instead Cheruiyot has chosen to investigate how journalists themselves perceive how criticism on social media affects them. For his PhD dissertation he is interviewing journalists, critics and media council officials in South Africa and Kenya.

“My analysis is still at an early stage, but some answers are prevalent. Many journalists claim to welcome criticism as long as it is analytical, but are ambivalent with regard to the critics. They are more open minded about comments from other journalists or researchers. Many critics on social media are dismissed as offensive or unreasonable.”

Cheruiyot has also talked with bloggers and critics who are active on social media and found that the definitions of what is a problem differs.

In South Africa, critics find the biggest problem factors are political bias and sensationalism, while journalists worry most about racism in reporting. They also see quality problems in the ongoing process of ‘juniorisation’, as media companies try to cut costs by getting rid of older, more experienced journalists (with higher wages), replacing them with newbies who lack experience in investigative reporting.

In Kenya, many critics complain about lack of professionalism among journalists, often referring to spelling mistakes or poor interviewing techniques. Journalists are concerned about political bias in reporting and increasing attempts by owners or politicians to influence journalism.

“Although the Kenyan media are comparatively free, there is a ‘soft’ censorship: politicians are putting pressure on publishers and the government is cutting advertisements or defaulting on payments. For many media companies, government advertisements are a major source of revenue.”

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress party (ANC) often criticises media for being subservient to "white monopoly capital" and downplaying issues relevant to the black majority population. According to the ANC, the self-regulatory system is not effective enough. The party has proposed setting up a Media Appeals Tribunal that would be accountable to Parliament.

Photo: Mats Hellmark.

“To journalists, these kinds of attempts at state regulation are regarded as threats to media freedom.”

David Cheruiyot worked as a journalist in Kenya and Uganda between 2004 and 2014. Since 2015, he has been researching media criticism and its impact on the practice of journalism at Karlstad University, Sweden.

Text: Mats Hellmark

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