The 14 May Occupy Parliament demonstration was an historic moment. It was the first Kenyan protest ever to be carried live on national television.
The Occupy Parliament movement was also innovative in its use of social media, which brought many middle-class Kenyans out to protest for the first time in their lives.
Not to exaggerate the event’s importance, but the protest – which famously used live pigs as a symbol of politicians’ greed – is emblematic of a new era. That era, however, has not been ushered in by liberating digital technologies.
It’s true that journalists covering protests in the past had to shuttle tapes back and forth to studio. And new digital networks, like the Internet, have undoubtedly opened new channels of communication that circumvent old gatekeepers. Technology is not irrelevant.
Still, these technologies are available everywhere, and yet the relationship between the media and protesters in Kenya is changing in a uniquely Kenyan way – which suggests that the technology is only part of the story.
We looked closely at the coverage of the Occupy Parliament protests and of the Unga Revolution demonstrations (back in 2011), and then we invited journalists and activists to sit down together to discuss how these events were reflected in the media. Many fascinating discoveries emerged from this process, but the most important lesson learned is this: that the relationship between journalists and protesters is in flux.
Both sides continue to do things more or less same way that they have for years, following a script that was written in the days of the pro-democracy movement, but they are also beginning to re-write that script – on both sides.
One activist neatly summed up the goal of many of the pro-democracy protests in the 90’s, especially those held on Saba Saba day: “To shame the dictator, we needed to be shown getting beaten up by the dictator.” Activists wanted to reveal the brutality of the Moi regime; what better way than to provoke it.
In that sense, protest in those days might be seen as a performance of the brutality and oppression that Kenyans were facing off camera.
Looking closely at more recent protests, you might conclude that the script of that performance is being rewritten. If the Moi-era protests were a demand to stop brutalizing Kenyans, the 2011 Unga Revolution protests represented a demand to recognize and attend to their needs: to demonstrate that they are not listening, they do not care, they are indifferent.
According to the very organizers of these protests, the news media acted according to a sense of duty to convey the voices of “hungry Kenyans.” Indeed, the legitimacy of Unga Revolution was rarely, if ever, questioned. News outlets may not have given the kind of background to the movement you find, for example, in IRIN’s short documentary “Kenya’s Unga Revolution,” but at least they showed up when a protest or press conference was announced.
One thing that has not changed, however, is how security forces are portrayed. News coverage often depicts how they were forced by the protesters to take action to restore order. And sometimes activists do aim to provoke. Much could be said about this particular character in the performance, but suffice to say that both activists and journalists find it difficult to recast the role. The news media use established tropes, or story lines, because they help to make news items easy to digest. To tell a new story takes a great deal of effort and time, which is perhaps the reason that the live images of police beating protests at the first Occupy Parliament demonstration were removed from prime-time broadcasts.
The Occupy Movement highlights another aspect of the changing relationship between journalists and activists. “Civil society” is now viewed cynically by many Kenyans, even by those on separate sides of the political divide. Journalists are expected to question the legitimacy of activists, organizers, protesters, which is fair enough; the media should be a watchdog for all who enter its gates.
But if there is to be a new standard set for activists to prove their credentials, it is not yet clear what that standard is, and it is certainly not being evenly applied. Activists themselves are slowly recognizing too that they need to find new ways to tell their story.
Kenyan journalists and activists have changed considerably in the decade since multi-party democracy prevailed, and they are both exploring their role in a murky and rapidly changing political environment. The coverage of protests in 2011 and 2013 was merely a rehearsal for important new scenes yet to come in Kenyan history.
But this is a character-driven story; the technologies are merely props.