The media have not done enough to report the violence in Kenya, but the explosion of informal information networks is a very positive developments, Salim Amin tells Dipesh Pabari in an interview for Fahamu.
DIPESH PABARI: What is your general assessment on the situation?
SALIM AMIN: Well, at the moment it is pretty much what is being shown on television; it is just pockets of protests around Nairobi. We have not been out to Eldoret or Kisumu but in Nairobi it is just pockets of demonstrations around Kibera, Kawangware and Ngong Road, Argwings Kodhek Road and places like that where it is a few hundred people marching and demonstrating and the police pretty quickly crush that. Yesterday, there was more looting and damaging of property which I don't think is ODM's idea of protest. These are just a bunch of unemployed people who are just taking advantage of opportunity presented to them.
We have never seen the likes of the police presence in this town. I have covered this city for about 15 years and never seen this sort size of police presence so obviously there are fears that it could get out of hand and police and GSU have been called out in large numbers. There are pictures that I have seen on TV of various insights of people being machete to death and churches being burnt personally I haven't seen that but it is obviously happening. It is happening in some of the areas where perhaps foreign journalist can't go to perhaps more local journalist can access to.
DIPESH PABARI: We are receiving conflicting messages – both sides are accusing each other of genocide and at the same time we are hearing that there is rampant destruction all over the country yet the government is saying it is just a few isolated incidences here and there. What should we believe?
SALIM AMIN: I think upcountry there is a much bigger problem than here. Places like Mount Elgon and Eldoret have always been the scene of a lot of ethnic tension between the different tribes stemming from the ethnic cleansing the happened in 1992. That has not been forgotten. For me that is the fear of what will happen in this country. If this is not stopped quickly then the grassroots hatred is going to get worse and worse amongst the different tribes and then it will not matter what Kibaki or Odinga or any of these guys say. That seed has already been sown and it is going to be very difficult to retract from that. It will get to the stage where people will say you burnt my house down now I am going to do the same to yours and once that starts as we saw in Rwanda in 1994, it is very difficult to pull back from that. That is my greatest fear. I think places like Nairobi will slowly get back to normal but areas where there is not much media coverage, where it is hard to get pictures out of, it is going to get worse and worse.
DIPESH PABARI: From that perspective, places like Mount Elgon which have been consistently on the edge, has the media done enough to highlight issues like this that have essentially led to where we are right now.
SALIM AMIN: I think the local media has not done enough. The international media has never done enough to cover Kenya in its entirety. The local media has been suspect in ignoring this problem as well. The government – I think it is in their interest – there are obviously huge political implications in what is going on. It would not surprise me if people within government or outside are a part of what is happening out there. It really would not surprise me at all. I think there is a lot of political background that needs to be investigated and examined. Unfortunately, as we know, no government is very good at internal examination of anything. You know I heard stories about possible genocide in Mount Elgon area over the last couple of days where people have set up road blocks and they are pulling people out of cars from different tribes and slaughtering them. And that is just like it was in Rwanda in 1994. That is very scary. I also heard yesterday that Nakumatt stopped selling machetes – they restricted it to one per person because people were coming in and buying 200 pieces at a go. I am very concerned that a lot of this may have been preplanned which does then give it the element of genocide. It is a very dangerous word to use but if it has been preplanned and organized then the elections were just an excuse to get it started. I just found out about this on the internet yesterday. The planning side of this is very scary. If it was something that just randomly happened because of the election than it can almost be understood because people are upset about the results and the way it panned out. But if this is something that people have been thinking about for 2, 3 or 4 months than this is a really scary scenario
DIPESH PABARI: Have you heard of any other similar cases that could imply planning for this?
SALIM AMIN: No, that was the only incident that I have heard about. And that I only found out about yesterday.
DIPESH PABARI: What we are witnessing for the first time is the explosion of information and reporting through mainstream media and new media such as blogging on the internet. There is so much information flowing and there may not be as much credibility to these sources. Do you think this information explosion is a positive or negative thing?
SALIM AMIN: I think it is a great thing. The more people talk about their incidences, the better – for any society. The problem is whether those reporting are accurate or not and that is what is very difficult to verify. You can't control what people blog or put on the internet. You don't know whether it is inciting people or it is actual fact. The government blackout on live coverage – while we initially came out and condemned it – after thinking about it a little more I can see their dilemma as a government because no TV or radio station in this country has what they call a delay switch where they can pause for 30 or 60 seconds so the editor can listen to what the person is saying. And this especially applies to radio stations and call in shows and there were incidences of people calling in and saying let the people of X tribe come out and avenge this – there was no way of stopping it until it had already gone out and the damage had been done. I think that is what led to the government taking action against live broadcasts. And with the different radio stations, the vernacular radio stations in particular, a lot of that could have been used to incite people which is exactly what happened in Rwanda in 1994 where a particular radio station was instrumental in fueling the genocide. So I think that was probably a smart move in hindsight. But they will have to restore it and put some form of control in by asking them to put this delay factor in so that the editors have a chance to actually vet what is happening on live shows.
DIPESH PABARI: During the build-up to the elections, we had a tremendous amount of media campaigning initiatives towards free and fair elections. The whole country was plastered with billboards; the radio waves were filled with information, etc. Do you think it has had much impact?
SALIM AMIN: I think that is what we are seeing is that people feel that they have been robbed at the ballot boxes. They went out in massive number, they voted for whoever they wanted to be president or MP and they feel like they have been robbed and that is why this resentment and this huge outcry for people that was never expected. Now both sides are claiming rigging so nobody really knows who did what and in which areas. There is obviously irregularities there is obviously rigging that happened. I suspect that a lot happened at the last minute and that is why it was so blatant and so obvious because I don't think anybody felt the mood of the country correctly. I don't think the Government thought that they would lose 20 of their ministers in a poll and I think that led to a panic at the last minute and that led childish changes to ballot paper and to forms. There was also in the opposition some hanky panky on their side and in their areas. For me the only solution to this problem would be to have a reelection, may be just a presidential election but with an independent electoral commission set up that has nothing to do with the Government that has people from outside with more observers coming in but that would take time to put together and to redo and in that time this country could disintegrate into a crisis that would be very difficult to come out of and even the new ballots would not fix.
DIPESH PABARI: Do you think we are getting there?
SALIM AMIN: I sadly think that if this situation is not sorted out within the next few days, it is not a matter of weeks or months; we are coming down a slope that we will not be able to climb back up.
DIPESH PABARI: Has there been any evidence or any public outcry from the media that has caused this violence? Where did it come from? You said earlier that people were disappointed but were there any leader that would have would have been responsible towards this?
SALIM AMIN: I think more than them doing anything or saying anything to make it happen, the fact that they did not do anything to stop it is more telling in my opinion. I think the fact that there are things that all leaders in this country could have done to avoid this earlier they did not do. I don't know anybody who deliberately came out and said 'go and start demonstrating', I don't think anyone has said that and but the fact that they did more to stop it is a mark on their record as political leaders.
DIPESH PABARI: 24 hours later after it all broke out we did hear cries of peace coming from both sides especially from ODM but it seems that their people are not listening.
SALIM AMIN: That is a worry for me as well I mean just seeing today's proposed rally as an example when Ruto addressed the crowd when they were stopped in Hurlingham and said that is fine we'll step down today and come back on Tuesday. Majority of the crowd did not listen and just wanted to keep going and that worries me that, at some point that it is going to get so personal amongst the people because of what they have suffered in their various shanties or slums, that they are not going to listen to their politicians anymore that they don't care what the leaders are saying, they just want some revenge of some sort and find any kind of method to do it. That is my fear that the longer this goes on, the less power the politicians are going to have to actually enforce their will on their own supporters.
DIPESH PABARI: We see the media more or less taking a side, the call for peace. It is the first time it has happened across all the newspapers sharing the same headlines. To what extent is it the responsibility of the media to act upon certain rumors that clearly might have terrible implications if they were true? For example, there was a rumor flying around that Ruto had organized truckloads of armed youth into Rift Valley. Where do you base your judgment on things like this as the media and is it your responsibility to report this as a warning?
SALIM AMIN: No, I don't think it is the media's responsibility at all to report that at all. They have to double check and triple check their facts especially at this very crucial time in our country's history. They have got to make sure what is reported anywhere is 100% accurate and there is no room for rumor or speculation or assumptions being made in the media. Up to this point I have been very impressed with the media as they have got together and are saying we have got to save our country. We have got to do whatever we can to say peace has been restored. I have been very impressed with that but they have to be even more vigilante with that to make sure that it is absolutely correct and if they can't verify information, don't put it out there because that just leads to more and more confusion and uncertainty amongst people and fear.
The fact that lives media has been blocked means that there is much more hearsay going on around the country, especially with things likes mobile phones. I think the media has the responsibility to play down all that stuff until they have checked and rechecked all the facts. And if they find anything that is huge, then yes, they should report it, and shame the people who are responsible for it.
DIPESH PABARI: Are the media houses working together and cohesively on this?
SALIM AMIN: I think they are but I have not been privy to those conversations because we are outside the local media setup here but for example, we produced a short call for peace – a 3 minute TV package and we are hopefully going to do more of those. When I called all the media houses to see if we can have the airtime to do it – every single one of them was supportive and said keep sending us more stuff.
DIPESH PABARI: Last question; are we all responsible as Kenyans for getting to this state?
SALIM AMIN: I think we are all responsible. I think it would be wrong for us to sit back and say that one group or another group is responsible for this. I think we have been very blasÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© about our politics and about how we might get involved. I think this is a lesson to all of us. We have all got to be responsible in the way our country is moving whatever part of society you are from. Whatever it is you do in life, you have got to take responsibility for what you do. I think if we can all go out and convince one person to stop fighting, to stop killing, to actually listen and talk, then we would actually have done something good
* Salim Amin is the son of the late Mohammed Amin, one of Africa's top photo journalist. Salim is now running Camerapix and is the founder of A24 which will be the first pan-African news channel.
* Dipesh Pabari is a freelance writer. He sits on the editorial board of Awaaz magazine and writes for various magazines and journals. Dipesh also works for WildlifeDirect.org as the Communications Manager.