Kenya's Media Avoid Religion, Keep Readers
KENYANS ARE ALMOST UNIVERSALLY RELIGIOUS, but the country’sjournalists believe that printing religious news is a sure way to lose readers, said Kenyan journalist Christopher Khisa at the Politics and Religion conference.
Khisa, himself a Christian and an editor with Kenya’s Royal Media Service, agrees with his fellow journalists. He says that serious reporters simply avoid quoting religious leaders because of the pervasive lack of interest in their opinions.
This is partly due to the Kenyan mindset that news is politics and politics is news. Khisa estimates that 90 percent of news content nationwide is politics. And the leftovers never include religion because it’s too boring or irrelevant.
Khisa blames Kenya’s clergy for this state of affairs.
The few religious leaders that tried to be politically active, Khisa said, became contaminated by the political process rather than embracing their role as the nation’s conscience. And when clergy action was desperately needed - most notably, in the wake of the violence that followed the rigged 2007 general elections and claimed the lives of 2,000 people - they were nowhere to be found.
“The people of East Africa spoke clearly on this issue (the election aftermath) but the clergy never came out clean on this. In my opinion, they were kind of lukewarm, neither here nor there, and so they were spit out by the masses,” Khisa said.
“Kenyans felt that the religious leaders abandoned them at a time of need.”
Khisa says that the country’s Christian majority has long viewed politics as something dirty and to be avoided. This view has moderated in recent years, but the consensus among religious groups is that politicians only want to exploit their support.
The mutual distrust has pushed the religious perspective out of the national conversation.
“For the church in Kenya, the guilt of having turned partisan in politics in the recent past has either condemned it to silence or to a deliberate position of wait and see until the dust settles down to make a move,” Khisa observed.
Religion only shows up in the news if there is a scandal or if clergy make sensational accusations toward the government. Then, of course, religion really sells papers, he said.
A case in point is the tension in the Anglican Church about the ordination of a gay bishop. The Daily Nation - a newspaper that Khisa says usually ignores religion completely - dedicated a full page to the story at the height of the controversy.
Khisa says that if religion is ever going to find its way into the news, then it’s up to religious leaders to begin to recover their public voice by being transparent and not enriching themselves on the backs of their impoverished congregations.
Khisa is hopeful that politicians and religious leaders can become more than just friends “of convenience,” but the prospects for better media coverage of religion are not good at all. Politics will continue to dominate the news, and day-to-day religion will continue to be ignored.
“In the region today, there is a fierce media war unlike any since the liberalization of the airwaves in the East African nations in the early 1990s,” Khisa said. “For this reason no media house will risk carrying stories that don’t sell.”
“And the stories least certain to sell come from the clergy.”