My most enduring impression of the foreign media in Kenya was formed during my adolescence. The assassination of J.M. Kariuki, the war and subsequent occupation of Uganda by Tanzanian forces, the death of Jomo Kenyatta and the attempted coup of 1982 will forever remain in my memory. These events ingrained in me the belief that my grandfather’s transistor radio was the only source of credible information. You see, my grandfather to whom I was close, loved his transistor radio and was a keen listener of BBC Swahili Service. Every evening at 6.30 pm, I joined him to listen to world news from the only credible source.
As young men becoming conscious of political realities under an oppressive regime, the Western media was the only way we learned what was happening around the world and ironically in our own country, for the regime of Daniel arap Moi held a cruel grip of what was broadcast or published by the local media. The news was always skewed to rally Kenyans behind the Nyayo regime. Divergent and dissenting views were countered with a cruel reaction. We went underground to read Mwakenya and Pambana articles (liberation materials) which we either burned immediately or threw in dustbins far from our houses. Such were the circumstances under which my generation grew: Cowed.
The western media became entrenched in our minds. We held in awe their correspondents whom we saw as fierce defenders of the truth and fearless against our ruthless dictatorship. As a ritual we listened to BBC radio and Voice of America, and read Newsweek and Time magazines when we got copies, for in them were relevant, credible and truthful news.
In a short one decade, the tide has turned against the western media. The foreign correspondent is held in suspicion and their story read with microscopic scrutiny. It suddenly seems like the foreign correspondent is working for the down fall of Kenya. And it is not without reason.
During the period of violence following the 2007 disputed General Election, the whole world watched Kenyans kill one another and destroy property worth millions of shillings. The portrait was that of a barbaric people. The local media was accused of constantly screening scenes and statements that encouraged further violence. That the country was burning was not in doubt.
During the March 4 elections, the local media was guarded, too cautious to the extent that some experts say the media played the role of peace activists and counselors. On the other hand, the western media was vilified, perhaps wrongly, for coming to cover the elections with a pre-conceived idea that there would be violence. Here was a case of two extremes: doves for the locals and blood for the West.