At Election Time It's Mobile Phone Journalism in Kenya

Posted by CorinneRamey on Dec 22, 2007

When most mainstream media report on Kenya's upcoming elections, they focus on the perspectives of people in cities or urban areas. However, since this October citizen journalists using cell phones have reported on news and political perspectives from rural Kenyan communities. A new collaboration between Media Focus on Africa and the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) gives mobile phones to "Community Information Volunteers" to use as a reporting tool.

Linda de Kooning, a media consultant at Media Focus on Africa, spoke with MobileActive about the initiative. Linda said that the program was conceived as a way to bring civic education to rural communities in Kenya and promote electoral participation in anticipation of the December 27 election. People in these communities are given a voice through short video interviews, all of which are filmed on Nokia n73 mobile phones. Linda said that Media Focus on Africa and ALIN have also worked with AfricaNews, which first introduced mobile phone reporting to Africa, to develop the program.

The "Community Information Volunteers," or CIVs, function as the reporters for the program. The CIVs who have degrees in communications or journalism, attended a workshop prior to beginning their stays in their respective communities. During the workshop, they learned how to use the phones, interview techniques, and background on the issues that they would be focusing on in their reporting. Linda said that the issues included poverty, political accountability, youth leadership, and electoral participation. "They are a very special group of people," Linda said of the CIVs. "They're very dedicated to these communities that don't have access to mass media." Each CIV is stationed in a different community in Kenya. In addition to the video interviews, the CIVs run focus groups on political issues and community information.

The videos on the website -- you can see them here -- focus on a variety of issues, many related to the upcoming elections. The videos are in a combination of English, Swahili, and other local languages. In one video, CIV Julius Matei in the Mwingi District asks questions of ethnicity and tribalism. "According to you, who is more tribalistic?" he asks, comparing the three Presidential candidates. In a video from the Laikipada District, Susan Kuria asks questions about women's participation in the political process. "I don't know why women have not been vying for political positions and I want to find out for my own person whether Kenyans are ready to vote for women leaders in the coming general elections," she says in this video.

Other videos discuss youth civic participation and race. Overall, the videos paint a picture of a beautiful and colorful country ready for political change. By focusing on underrepresented areas, these mobile phone reporters show that although Kenyans don't necessarily agree on policies, people in rural areas are ready to engage in political dialogue and civic participation.

Linda said that one of the biggest surprises that arose from the project involved issues surrounding women. "There were a lot of problems convincing the women to do interviews," she said. "They're more shy and not as willing to give their opinion." This trend seemed to continue at the voting booth. "I was kind of shocked by the fact that women weren't really voting themselves but following their husbands' footsteps. The men had the voting cards of the women," she said.

Another surprise involved the volunteers sharing the videos on the mobile phones. Linda said that they had expected the phones just to be used for recording and uploading video, but the CIVs used the phones to share the videos with communities where Internet access wasn't readily available. "They use the telephone not only for the clips they upload to the website but for other purposes," she said. "The people in the communities really like that use of the mobile phones." Some of the videos will also be used in a television presentation on the program.

Linda said that the CIVs have also collected mobile phone numbers from the people in their communities for an upcoming SMS campaign. "We will send people voter education messages telling them what time they can vote and what they need to do," she said. There will be a series of five messages on the days leading up to the December 27 elections.

Although the election will occur in about a week, Linda said that the project will likely continue until January. "We also want to hear the reaction of people after election day. They have a view and we would like to hear what they expect from the new leader," she said. She also said that the CIVs felt like they were making an impact on Kenyan society. "They think they made a change because I think for them it was important that the people at the local level had a chance to express their opinion and a feeling that they were taken seriously. It's something that will bring them a place in the political arena."

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