Former Vice Chairperson, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Hassan Omar
By Venter Mwongera.
The Kenyan media might be sanitizing human rights atrocities committed by the military during the Kenya army’s incursion into Somalia. An Internews media roundtable on the Military Incursion into Somalia, heard that by feeding audiences with information mainly from one source, the Kenyan military, the media was guilty of propaganda, or at the very least, sourcing from one or two perspectives only. Given the complexity of the conflict and the many facets, this was a serious indictment of the media, the roundtable, the roundtable participants concluded.
Several speakers said that the story of the human suffering and death of innocent civilians remained untold because the media fell captive to the military script. “How do you compare the killing of four tourists (by the Al Shabaab?) in Lamu to the death of more than a hundred Muslim civilians by security forces in this alleged war against terror? What about the Somali Kenyans who are being profiled and discriminated against?” said Hassan Omar, Vice Chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).
Omar said that the media was being used by the army for propaganda instead of giving insight and varied reporting on the impact of the incursion in Somalia. He said that while the media in countries like France and Holland were holding the Kenyan military to account, Kenyan journalists stuck to story lines and terminologies emailed to them by Major Emmanuel Chirchir, the army spokesman of Operation Linda Nchi.
Omar noted that although the Al Shabaab was a rag tag terror gang, the media had, through choice of words, portrayed the operations as a war against a conventional army. He said terms like “Somalia is under siege”, “Jet flattens camps” and “...in a statement released by the military the latest assault had crippled the militia group...” make it appear like a major conventional war.
He said that since the army lacked modern and smart warfare weapons to identify and pick out enemy camps, many civilians must be falling victims to the bombardments.
Omar warned that media houses were breaching Article 33(2) of the 2010 Constitution, which dissuades the media against propagating propaganda for war: “When the politicians do things they shouldn’t have done, we call for their resignation. Who will ask editors to resign once we establish that this war had no foundation and they have carried constantly propaganda of the war?” he asked.
Deqa Abshir, Project Development Officer of the Kenya Transitional Initiative based in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, which is populated mainly by members of the Somali community, said that this “uncritical coverage” had the danger of portraying all people of Somali origin as criminals and terrorists.
Deqa stated that “many people of Somali origin living in Kenya are treated with contempt. While boarding public transport, they are referred to as Al Shabaab.”
She said that since Kenya started its security operation in Somalia, the humanitarian aid process had been disrupted and appealed to the Kenyan government to withdraw its army and pursue diplomatic ways of dealing with the Al Shabaab issue.
Participants at the roundtable conference heard that many journalists failed to use conflict sensitive or appropriate military language when reporting on the incursion. Other speakers wondered if the media had been driven biased reporting by commercial interests.
Simiyu Werunga, C.E.O Africa Centre for Security and Strategic Studies said that in order for Kenya to withdraw from Somalia while saving its face, the military should join the larger United Nations Peace Keeping force in Somalia.
The perspective of Abdirisak Aden, Former Permanent Secretary with the Transitional Federal Government of Republic of Somalia, the TFG, was also sought. Aden says Kenya has a legitimate right to diminish threats in its territory but what is needed is a long term and a sustainable solution. “If Kenya has a short time engagement with Al - Shabaab in Somalia and deals with threats before leaving the Somalis to solve their own problems, then that is okay. If however they overstay without an exit strategy, things will not be good”, said Aden.
Internews Country Director - Kenya, Ida Jooste said that journalists must understand and critically analyze terminologies such as; militia, war, incursion, front line in war and terrorist to avoid exacerbating the conflict.
Neither the Kenyan military nor clever Al Shabaab messaging through social media provides the full picture. Kassim Mohamed, a Nairobi based journalist who has covered Somalia extensively, challenged the media to source relevant blogs and social media from within Eastleigh and Somalia, to gain access to the many perspectives of conflict.
The four-year Health Media Project (HMP) launched in January 2013. It builds on the success of Internews’ Voices in Health media training program (2003-2012).