Simplifying Pakistan and Kenya

By Guest Columnist Jan 15, 2008

by Thanu Yakupitiyage In late December, the world was captivated by raw coverage of catastrophic political events. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, former President of two terms and candidate in the 2008 Pakistani elections, was assassinated after a rally in the Northern city of Rawalpindi. The event led to national mourning and severe rioting in cities across the nation. In Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, having already served one term in office, appeared to be the Presidential winner over oppositional candidate, Raila Odinga. Accusations of rigged elections resulted similarly in wide spread looting and killing that are increasingly being reported as ethnic violence against the Kikuyu tribe. The raucous has been more than just a field day for Western media, who dare I say, calculatedly display imagery of civilians pillaging the streets in an effort to show a breakdown of order and as prime examples of ‘failed democracies’. In an email to a good friend in Karachi, Pakistan, I expressed my frustration at the way in which the mainstream media sensationalizes these events; I feared the constant coverage of violence and despair would fuel a distorted and hyperbolic perception of ‘savagery.’ She responded that her first reaction to the aftermath of Bhutto’s death was that the images being displayed on BBC and the likes were completely real. Her concern had more to do with the manipulation of imagery to support a superficial analysis of what was happening. In the lens of Western media, the face of Bhutto, serene and clad in white dupatta, was eulogized as a beacon of freedom and democracy, while reports conspired the involvement of Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalists. The initial coverage of ransack simply upheld her martyrdom, while failing to delve into more complex issues of a civil society that has long been politically frustrated. Having similar fears of media exaggeration in the Kenya crisis, I tried to learn as much as I could about what was going on. Knowing little about the situation and having only seen snippets of coverage on CNN and other conglomerates, I had assumed that the rigged reelection of Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had caused clashes with ethnic Luos, whose prime candidate was Odinga. After being referred to an article by Tavia Nyong’o in The Nation, I noted that conveniently simplistic explanations were being given for the ongoing events. Nyong’o blames the “Western penchant for ‘disaster porn’ coverage” for using images of mayhem to paint a picture of what seems first to be an ethnic crisis. His article shows a more complex situation, one whose roots do not stem from “atavistic tribalism”, but once again from political frustration and the desire for a transparent and democratic election process. Mainstream Western media have wrongfully taken these two events as an opportunity to tell morality tales that rely on the defamation of people from the Global South. The focus on civilian destruction leaves no room to consider why such violent protest has occurred.