By Collins Baswony
The number of false claims and half-truths about governments’ upcoming interventions and projects will likely rise exponentially as we hurtle towards the 2017 general elections.
Politicians, both at the national and county level, will tell these false claims and half-truths as they seek to win voters’ minds and hearts in their quest for election or re-election. The news media will unwittingly propagate these claims to millions of their readers, listeners and viewers in their news coverage.
Such ‘innocent’ misinformation that the media may propagate is a real and present danger to Kenya’s democracy.
Majority of Kenyans get their news and information from the mass media – radio, newspaper and television. Most studies estimate this number at between 89% and 91% of Kenyans. Moreover, Kenyans trust the news and information that they get from the media. A study published by BBC Media Action research in 2013 showed that seven out of 10 Kenyans trust radio for information on politics and current affairs, while six out of 10 trust television.
Couple this trust in the media with the agenda setting power of the media, and it becomes clear how serious the issue of misinformation potentially is. Even though the media cannot tell Kenyans what to think, it can, through news coverage, tell them what to think about.
In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues—that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.
This is the description of the agenda setting function of the mass media; the agenda setting theory that was first put forth by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972 in Public Opinion Quarterly.
It is therefore important that the news media ensures, through rigorous fact checking, that it is not culpable in propagating false claims and half-truths, hence misleading Kenyans who trust it. Journalists, editors and news outlets must go the extra mile in verifying claims that politicians make using budget documents.
Unlike in the past where public finance matters in Kenya were ‘siri kali’, in 2017 Kenya, we have the benefit of a fairly transparent budget making process. The Public Finance Management of 2012 requires governments, both at the national and county levels to publish budget documents.
No public expenditure can happen outside what the budget indicates. Therefore, when a politician makes a claim about upcoming interventions and projects, that claim can be verified using budget documents.
The national government and county governments are required to publish their budget documents. One can access the budget for FY 2016/2017 as well as the proposed budget for FY 2017/2018 on the website of The National Treasury and the 47 county websites. Any project in progress or projects proposed in 2017/2018 are in these budget documents.
Journalists can invoke the access to information act 2016 or use their professional guile to get their hands on these documents in the event they are not available in the public domain.
Either way, journalists and news outlets must take advantage of these budget documents to verify claims made by politicians about projects that government is executing or planning to execute. They must ensure that the information and news they serve to their readers, listeners and viewers is devoid of politicians’ false claims and half-truths.
The writer is a communications practitioner working with an international development organisation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter: @BwanaCollins