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Author: Rachael Kagan
Title: "Tribal" practices: U.S. press cries tribalism
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: "Tribal" practices: U.S. press cries tribalism
Rachael Kagan

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 4, pp. 15, 1992
Author Biography: Rachael Kagan is on the staff of the Africa Fund, New York.

READING MEDIA "Tribal" Practices

Spring, 1992, Passages wrote to a number of newspapers and other media organizations in the United States to see if there were any editorial standards or rules regarding the use of such expressions as "tribe", "tribalism", "ethnic", and "ethnicity" for the guidance of writers, broadcasters, and editors. Among the replies received, The New York Times senior editor, William Borders notes that

We do not have a policy or common practice that covers this area. Maybe one day we will develop one. We are constantly re-evaluating the way we do things, in all areas. Thanks so much for writing. Letters from thoughtful readers like you help us to do a better job of meeting our own standards.

More recently, Passages received a copy of an article on the use of such practices in reporting. The article appeared in the June, 1992, issue of Lies Of Our Times: A Magazine to Correct the Record, pp.5-6, and is reproduced here by permission of LOOT.

U.S. Press Cries Tribalism


In Uhuru Park, Nairobi, a small group of hunger strikers kept vigil in "Freedom Corner," named for their demand that their sons, Kenyan political prisoners, be freed.

For five days five mothers of political prisoners had occupied Freedom Corner in a dramatic show of determination. Surrounded by supporters and provided with water and candles by Kenya's leading opposition group, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), they sustained their non-violent demonstration. "We will only move from this place when the government brings our sons here," they said.

On the fifth day of protest, March 3, 1992, they were forced to vacate the park by over 200 riot police using tear gas and batons. Several protesters were hospitalized, including a 70-year-old woman who was beaten. Three women, following a Kikuyu tradition, stripped naked in order to curse at the police and defy their orders to leave.

That this story was reported in Kenya's largest paper, the Daily Nation, is itself newsworthy, for before December 1991 the government enforced strict press censorship. The freedom to report vicious government repression is a somewhat bitter victory—one that only goes so far. In April 1992 the publishers and staff of the weekly newsmagazine Society were arrested and arraigned on charges of sedition for publishing articles critical of the government and the president.

President Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, is best known these days for his recent, and reluctant, conversion to multi-party democracy. He legally enshrined his Kenya Africa National Union (KANU) as Kenya's sole party in 1982. But by last November mounting internal resistance and increased international attention had reached a fever pitch with hundreds of protesters and opposition leaders being arrested at a time. The final blow to Moi's intransigence was international lenders' threat to cut off credit. In December he lifted the ban on opposition parties and announced that elections would follow, although no date has been set.

Since December Moi has shown only a nominal acceptance of multi-party politics. He banned political meetings in March and continues to deny media access to the opposition. Political prisoners remain in jail, and treason and sedition trials are ongoing (some charges of advocating a multi-party democracy, which is no longer illegal). In fact, six months ago it was even illegal to make a two fingered "V" sign in public, as that stood for two parties.

The most serious threat to democracy in Kenya is also the one most ineptly handled by the U.S. media. That is a serious campaign of destablizing violence that has left hundreds dead and 50,000 homeless so far this year. Typically, this has been reported to U.S. readers as "tribal" warfare. In commenting on the New York Times's coverage, Binaifer Nowrojee, Africa Director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, told LOOT the "mistake is reporting 'black on black' violence with no context or political ideology explained ... Instead they just report that a Kalenjin gang, for example, killed a certain number of Luo last night, or whoever it happens to be and that's it."

Of the ten stories on Kenya in the New York Times so far this year, half have used terms such as "tribal-related outbursts," "tribal clashes," and "ethnic violence":

"Two die in Kenya violence," March 16;

"Kenya Orders Ban on Political Meetings," March 21;

"Ethnic Violence is Shaking Kenya," March 29;

"Kenyan Tribal Clashes Kill Three in the West," April 26;

"Kenya, a Land that Thrived, is Now Caught Up in Fear of Ethnic Civil War," May 3.

Leaders of varying factions are always identified by their ethnic origin, implying that their following is constituted only on that basis. Obscured is the fact that FORD is multi-ethnic and that Kenyan opposition does not split along ethnic lines. By now U.S. readers are used to being told violence is endemic to Africa, and this sort of reporting reinforces that impression.

Although ethnic differences play a role in Kenyan politics, they operate in tandem with other factors, and political grievances are often manifested in heightened ethnic tension. According to Nowrojee, "For many Kenyans, the first allegiance is to their ethnic group rather than their nationality. But this fact has been politically manipulated. For instance, the Kalenjin are roundly hated because Moi who is Kalenjin used his presidency to move Kalenjins exclusively into seats of power throughout the country. There are many divisions like this."

When Moi agreed to political change, he said that democracy would never work in Kenya because of tribalism. Churches, opposition leaders, international human rights agencies, and even the U.S. Embassy argue that he is engineering the violence in order to destabilize the country and sabotage the coming elections.

"President Moi has on the one hand used the specter of ethnic violence to prevent opening Kenya up politically, while on the other hand he is doing everything he can to whip it up to his advantage," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch.

Nowrojee agreed, "I wouldn't be surprised if Moi called a state of emergency and said now there can't be elections."

There is a lot of evidence of government involvement in the violence, including reports of government Land Rovers dropping off traditional weapons at the site of an attack. The raids take place outside of urban centers, in the settlement areas where people live. Beyond the obvious danger, surprise attacks by well-armed men create a climate of political instability and fear.

"It is very important that people understand the situation has changed for the better, but it could still go either way. It's very precarious," Dicker warned. "Moi will stop at almost nothing to maintain power and keep his KANU cronies in power. He will play the ethnic card to the hilt. This sort of violence takes on a momentum of its own, and those who instigated it can step back. I think that's a very great danger in this situation."

Rachael Kagan is on the staff of The Africa Fund in New York City.

Lies Of Our Times [LOOT] is published monthly and is available for $24.00/year from 145 W. 4th St., New York, NY 10012 USA. The New York Times is located at 229 West 43 Street, New York, NY 10036 USA.

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