Media Bias in Kenyan Election Coverage: Male versus Female Candidates

United Democratic Alliance (UDA) delegates attended the party’s National Delegates Conference on Tuesday, March 15, ahead of Kenya’s August 9, 2022 election. By evening, trending headlines in most local digital news sites was about Senator Millicent Omanga dancing at the event, with no mention of anything important that was discussed that day. In the run-up to Kenya’s coming elections, media use of such ‘entertainment angles’ is likely to persist, based on the past history portrayed by their reality – a reality that increasingly gets in the way of women’s engagement in politics. Gender bias in political election coverage has long been thought to be a fundamental barrier to women’s electoral success and institutional representation. The number of women elected to serve in various capacities in Kenyan general elections in 2017 was higher than in 2013. In 2013, all women senators, who sat in the 2013 to 2017 senate, came via nomination, because no woman candidate won the election on those particular posts. There was no female governor then. However, the figure from 2017 is still small considering that only two female governors and three female senators were selected – out of a total of 47 governors and 47 senators chosen. The poor portrayal of women in politics has harmed and continues to affect women’s chances in politics. The media has a major influence on public opinion, and the general public relies on it for political information Remember, female candidates still face a slew of other challenges, including insufficient political support from their parties, particularly during primaries; a lack of financial resources; gender-based violence; gender stereotyping; and patriarchal institutions across society. That is why the media may harm women because they rely on them to be objective, professional, and supportive in their reporting, but the media might be among the first to stereotype them in public places. Patriarchy, family connections, sexuality and appearance, propaganda and controversy, and finally, gender reflecting terminology and tags are the key frames used to cover women in leadership, but for men it is more about their policy views and agenda. As a buffer against unfavourable media coverage, this framing has the effect of causing a sub conscious withdrawal from media participation. According to a 2016 study, media portrayal of prominent women in leadership boils down to individual engagement with media houses and media content management. In addition, the gender narrative is not intentionally propagated by the media, but rather as a social construct that emphasizes the male gender’s supremacy, as is advanced in patriarchal societies.   Using examples from previous media coverage, a number of elements that maintain patriarchal beliefs can be found. These include everything from media language to preconceptions and cultural practices. Linguistic sexism is also prevalent in Kenyan politics. Here are a few examples: Women who enter politics are often judged on their femininity rather than their substance due to cultural barriers. As a result, the female candidate has been obliged to endear herself to voters based on her attractiveness rather than her political views. Common slang phrases for a beautiful lady, such as ‘manzi,”msupa,’ and ‘mrembo,’ are used in a woman’s political campaign. Women who have achieved high office have frequently been portrayed as outstanding women who ‘act like men.’ Despite this, they are frequently chastised for being unfeminine and unlikable. In Kenya’s 2008 coalition administration, Martha Karua, a former presidential candidate and Cabinet minister, was regarded as the ‘only man’ in former President Mwai Kibaki’s cabinet.” In Kenyan society, and particularly in the media, patriarchy steadfastly refuses to give way. Here is an example of a news article written by a local site that provides information about politics and governance: The title is “6 Most Beautiful Female Politicians in Kenya” and the introduction says – Politics is a sector that requires high intelligence and courage to survive in it. It has many ups and downs that’s why it doesn’t require soft people like most women. But unfortunately, we have heroines who have ventured into politics in full force regardless of the gender. Negative portrayals of powerful women in leadership are a clear evidence and accusation that Kenya’s media has chosen to accept gendered lenses, undermining the two-thirds gender ratio. Nonetheless, the rise of female legislators is accelerating. Rural areas are producing an increasing number of female leaders, indicating that Kenya’s democracy is deepening. That is why, now more than ever, the media must embrace gender-equitable coverage methods in Kenyan electoral politics. However, the society’s thinking, which is supposed to complement issues that the constitution aims to protect, will remain the elephant in the room as well as the key to breaking this gendered circle. Another approach for the media to rapidly reduce prejudice is to improve the quality of their journalists. They can follow The Conversation’s three recommendations, which are as follows: First, follow the “rule of reversibility”: “If you wouldn’t ask a male to do it, don’t ask a woman to do it!” Second, don’t focus on the personal lives of female candidates for public office. Finally, further research is needed to truly address the frequently obvious (but sometimes covert) media bias. Journalists throughout the world need to be taught how to recognize and avoid damaging gender stereotypes. Journalism trainers and organizations such as International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) can work with media organizations to give gender-sensitive reporting refresher courses. Cecilia Maundu is a broadcast journalist, a digital rights researcher, a gender specialist and a digital security expert. She conducts digital security trainings for women journalists. She works at the intersection of journalism, technology and human rights, with a focus on countering online abuse of women journalists while protecting freedom of expression.  She is also a podcaster, she has a podcast called “Digital Dada”. Digital Dada presents conversations with people who have gone through online and effective measures available to counter this scourge against women journalists. Guest Editorial by Cecilia Maundu

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