Thursday, March 4, 2010



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
March 4, 2010

Recent attacks and labeling in the local media have caused me to think of what we in the media are up to when we start accusing one another of all sorts of evil about being propagandist, pro government or pro reform movements in our society. It would appear like there has been a certain level of recklessness if not un-weighed lose talk regarding this subject called propaganda.

If un-thought of carefully, the meaning of the word propaganda can easily degenerate into a cliché that everybody talks about without bothering to understand its actual meaning.

For purposes of this article, I chose to look up some definitions from authoritative sources such as Google, Wikipedia and my gold old Webster dictionary that I would like to share with my readers.
The definitions are as varied as their sources as indicated below:
• Information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause
• A form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position
• A concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of a large number of people
• The promotion of specific ideas or views , often political in nature
• Any media text whose primary purpose is to openly persuade an audience of the validity of a particular point of view
• The systematic effort of controlling public opinion or a course of action by using selected facts, ideas or allegations

These six definitions are proof that the meaning of propaganda is as varied as the ground on which one stands at any one point in time. It also illustrates that the use of propaganda can never be the monopoly of a government of the day, a single politician, a journalist or a media house. In essence, every human being is a propagandist only the cause, time and circumstances may vary from time to time.

If we take the first definition above that talks about spreading information for the purpose of promoting some cause, it is possible to deduce that if Catholics want to wage war against promiscuity and condom use, they will resort to propaganda that preaches celibacy and total ban on premarital sex or sex outside marriage.

However if the same church launches a campaign against HIV and AIDS among the youth and sexually active adults, they will be packaging information that aims at influencing opinions and behavior of many of their flock to understand the dangers of the pandemic.

Conversely, during election seasons, we have seen politicians and political parties publishing their brand of ideas that they invariably describe as campaign manifestos. These are the ideas they try to sell to the electorate in order to win votes.
They will select issues like press freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of information, free universal primary education, job opportunities for the jobless, food security and slum upgrading among many ideas. They package these ideas selectively in order to look better than their opponents in order to win elections. This type of propaganda is of a political nature.

During the 2007 elections when almost all the media houses took partisan stands and supported either
PNU, ODMK or ODM. It was obvious that news reporting and even talk shows in a number of media houses were slanted towards the political parties and politicians of their choice. In such situations media texts were packaged primarily to shamelessly persuade various audiences, regions and tribes of the validity of a particular politician’s point of view. In such scenarios, the media could also be labeled propagandist in the way it packaged its messages or shaped public opinion.

It is only in the last case where propaganda definition talks about a systematic effort of controlling public opinion or a course of action by using selected facts, ideas or allegations can we claim that it directly refers to any government of the day. And this circumstance cannot be unique to Kenya.

During the Second World War when Britain was losing the war to Hitler, Winston Churchill used selective information to convince Britons that they were actually winning the war against the Germans! Even though the contrary was true, such propaganda was necessary to boost the morale of a bartered nation in order to continue fighting.

After the 9/11 incident, American and British governments put up a spirited campaign against all terrorists and countries that were alleged to support them. They used facts and fiction to convince the world that Iraq and Afghanistan were the bedrocks of terrorism out to annihilate the rest of the civilized world.

Countries that have effectively used propaganda machines in the past to control public opinion include Kenya during Moi’s rule, especially after the 1982 coup attempt, Cuba after the 1959 revolution, USSR after the World War 2, South Africa during the apartheid years and Tanzania during the reign of Julius Nyerere.

However, when it comes to the use of propaganda to shape opinion, change attitude or further the interests of a particular cause or group of people, the politician, the press or the government cannot claim a moral high ground. Each is as guilty as the other. It is therefore cheap journalism for some media houses to claim that Kenya Today is a government propaganda tool while they are not. If it is, so are all other media houses that shape opinions in the interest of their tribes, their owners, donors and special interest groups.