World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the spring 2017 Fascism Rising issue is: What role does the media play in driving xenophobia? Below, Mwaura Samora describes the press’ role in fueling violence in Kenya and South Africa, emphasizing the duty of journalists to report in a manner that will cause more good than harm.
By Mwaura Samora
After a disputed presidential election in 2007, the Kenyan media showed the new president’s supporters being beaten, killed, and driven out of their homes by members of the opposition. This video triggered attacks across the country, and compelled the Interior Ministry to ban all live broadcasts.
Later, analyses of the media content during the 100 days of post-electoral violence revealed that the press played a pivotal role in fueling the violence between communities.
The same script replayed in South Africa the next year when xenophobic attacks killed 62 people, mostly migrants and small business owners from the neighboring countries of Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe (21 South African citizens also died). In 2015, a wave of anti-immigrant violence in Africa’s largest economy struck again. This time, blame initially fell on Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s hate speech against foreigners. According to South African media, he told a crowd, “Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back.”
Zwelithini blamed both mainstream and social media channels for “manufacturing” stories meant to increase audience sizes and sensationalize the violence, and in 2016, an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission vindicated his claims, finding no link between the king’s comments and the xenophobic attacks.
Instead, reports again showed that the media stoked the fires of hatred against foreigners. The reports also indicated that some media houses portrayed foreigners as an economic burden to society, which somehow justified their attacks in poor neighborhoods in Kwazulu-Natal and other provinces. This was not without historical precedent. During the Holocaust, partisan Nazi media played a critical role in encouraging Germans to rise against the Jews. This framework also echoed that of the Rwandan Genocide, when media like the RTML Radio encouraged the Hutu to kill the Tutsis, who were branded as “cockroaches.”
As media practitioners, it’s our duty and responsibility to report even the most violent situations in a manner that will cause more good than harm. In addition to other factors like security and poverty, media coverage of conflict can influence the intensity and sometimes the duration of attacks. If the media feeds the masses gore and images of blood and death, the situation is more likely to intensify; sensationalism only creates a hunger for more violence. But a concentration on root causes and the dissemination of reconciliatory and healing messages can help prevent xenophobic attacks before more lives are lost.
Mwaura Samora is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya.
[Photo courtesy of Demosh]