Coverage Fit for a Slum

A mighty fire breaks out in a Nairobi slum on a chilly Monday morning. People are burning down to ashes and bones. Their meagre possessions are up in flames. There is utter helplessness. Rescue operations get underway but the death toll is rising. TV stations alternate between live transmission of the disaster and airing entertainment programmes: music, soaps and movies…

That evening during the seven o’clock news bulletin, a Citizen TV reporter wonders quite patronizingly why Kenyans have failed to learn from previous catastrophes and continue to mindlessly engage in behaviour that exposes them to death and injury.

The conclusion the media – not just Citizen TV – seems to have drawn is that the poor are to blame for the misfortunes that befall them. Practically all the news reports took this view – except a news feature in the Daily Nation by Murithi Mutiga. Nation Special Projects Editor and columnist Macharia Gaitho best captured this thinking.

In a column titled, ‘Don’t blame government for slum inferno, lay it at door of impunity’, Gaitho argued that, not only did the residents of Sinai start the tragedy by trying to steal leaking oil, but they have also for years resisted government efforts to relocate them. He did not say to where.

Here are Mr. Gaitho’s exact words: ‘Today, let us not blame the government. Let us not point the finger at the ruling classes. In the wake of the Sinai disaster, we must examine our own sense of entitlement, impunity and greed. Nothing else can explain why adults of sound mind would rush headlong into a race for spilt petrol in total disregard of the obvious dangers. Nothing else can explain why people in their right senses would insist on living atop an oil pipeline.’

The very next day, Karanja Njoroge who writes the ‘Point Blank’ page in the Standard blamed the Sinai tragedy on negligence on the part of Kenya Pipeline Company and greed. “We are a greedy lot, and most likely won’t learn from this disaster where some died clutching gallons of petrol.”

And in an editorial on Thursday about the fire tragedy and the death of over 20 people from poisonous moonshine, Nation suggested that Kenyans (read the poor) are suicidal and that there is nothing anyone can do about it. “Sometimes, one can be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands in despair because it appears Kenyans have a collective death wish.”

Well, is it really greed, impunity and a death wish that account for these tragedies among the country’s poor people? But before that, let’s state here that it is simply not true that all those people – men, women and children – who perished or suffered serious injuries at Sinai were actually in the “race for spilt petrol in total disregard of the obvious dangers”, as Mr. Gaitho wrote. It is so callous to generalize.

There surely must be people lying in hospital beds or in the morgue who had no idea how the fire started or who weren’t “clutching gallons of petrol”, an unquestionable sign of greed according to Mr. Njoroge of The Standard. Yet Gaitho and Njoroge – and the media generally – have no problem characterizing all poor people as a mass of greedy dimwits.

And this is the real point that the media has missed when covering such disasters: we live in a country where some people are so poor they would not hesitate to engage in extremely risky actions out of desperation to get something for themselves and their families.

What the media is often quick to condemn as Kenyans’ “greed”, “impunity”, “love for free things” or “a collective death wish” is actually the consequence of grinding poverty arising from years of looting and mismanagement of national resources. There is also the failure of the state to protect the people by securing certain potentially dangerous areas. Why haven’t we seen slums built inside military barracks or at State House?

The slum dwellers are mostly school leavers or drop-outs clinging by the skin of their teeth on the walls of Kenya’s woefully unjust socio-economic train. Their parents were not rich enough to take them to the best schools and colleges or to give them anything meaningful with which to start adult life.

You have heard public officials calling for ‘civic education’ to discourage Kenyans from trying to collect spilt oil at accident scenes. You have heard sermons against the consumption of deadly brews as well.

But The Bulletin guarantees that no amount of ‘civic education’ or preaching is going to stop poor people from living dangerously. If the oil leak in Sinai happens in an area occupied by well-off people, the chances of a fire killing 100 people are almost nil. Death from poisonous alcoholic brews always happens in the slums or in some rural village.

Why is it that only poor people die in this manner? Are they simply suicidal, ignorant or greedy?

Unlike what Mr. Gaitho said – and the rest of the media implied – the government is fully to blame for the Sinai disaster and all the others. Why are some people in this country so poor that they have to take serious risks to stay alive while others live in excess comfort?

Are the millions of people living dangerously in the slums of Nairobi entitled to basic services in the city? It is claimed that the people of Sinai rejected attempts by the government to move them. Did the government really have a plan to move them, or it only wanted to evict them?

On what grounds could anyone argue that people who don’t have big money should not live in the city? How did the slums come about in the first place? How can we say that ‘Kenya belongs to all Kenyans’ when wide socio-economic inequalities have made it impossible for millions of citizens to live decently in their own capital city?

And now, what comprehensive plans does the government have for the poor people living in slums, beyond the sickening promises to foot the costs of burial and medical care for those burned in Sinai? What was the point of declaring two days of national mourning? Who actually mourned?

These are the urgent questions the media needed to ask – and this country needs to address. It is extremely heartless to blame the poor for their own suffering. And as has been experienced elsewhere, poor people are not going to put up with their dehumanizing conditions forever. Their plight is not only a question of justice but also a potential source of social instability. The poor exist because of the rich.

The blood of the Sinai people should not dry in the dust in vain. The government (which never lacks money to meet all sorts of needs of the privileged class) must move beyond talking, beyond dreams like Vision 2030, and make poverty alleviation its top priority.


That was a big story

It was buried deep inside The Standard newspaper last Monday, on Page 33 after the sleazy ‘Crazy Monday’ pullout and business news. ‘Aga Khan carries out first video surgery’, read the headline.

“Kenya is firmly in the fast lane towards comprehensive e-health provision,” the paper jubilated. “Last week, surgeons from Aga Khan University Hospital performed the first ever surgery using the video conferencing surgery technology…”

This could well be the year’s biggest science story. But it hardly received much media attention beyond the report in The Standard. It couldn’t beat politics.

The only reason why the science story was not splashed on the front page is because of the apparent thinking at The Standard – and in all media houses – that Kenyan news consumers are more interested in politics than in science and technology or anything else.

A scientific innovation that would touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people is of much less interest than a political rally meant to push the agenda of a handful of politicians. Is that indeed what Kenyans want?

Ok, there is nothing wrong about public interest in politics. In fact every effort should be made to encourage this. Politics concerns the exercise of power to organize public affairs. We should all be interested in how that is done. But is that the type of media coverage of politics we see?

Hardly. It is mostly about personalities: what politician A said, who is making alliances with whom, etc. It is about who is going up and who is coming down.

The media, as we all know, has agenda-setting as one of its many functions. It may not be very good at telling people what to think, but it is quite powerful in telling people what to think about. So, there is a sense in which Kenyans’ alleged obsession with petty politics is a creation of the media. If media opted to shift focus, it can be reasonably expected that in time the public will follow suit.

Is that about to happen? We can only hope. Important developments like the use of video conferencing surgery are opportunities to relegate politics to the back burner and signal to the public that there is more to the news than what’s going on in the minds of William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, etc.

That may require more creative and bolder heads at decision making levels in our media houses; people who are willing to use the powerful means at their disposal to help the nation dream of possibilities beyond the power games of the political class.


What TV business news?

A while back, NTV launched a daily business news programme called PM Live. A great initiative when one considers that, as we have already stated, the important news in the Kenyan media tends to be about politicians. K24 and KBC Channel 1 also have new business programmes. That’s great.

The only problem, though, is that the programmes basically focus on what the corporate honchos and state mandarins are doing around town. Of course one or two stories about start-ups are thrown in from time to time.

But the general impression one gets is that doing business is an elite domain for the very lucky few who were chosen by God before the foundations of the universe were laid. The rest of us should watch from the sidelines and take notes if interested; otherwise we should continue our wretched existence watching political theatrics as a form of entertainment.

The business news programmes never really dig up stuff about those big firms. They are all great enterprises conducting every transaction above board and enriching the nation; they are great corporate citizens who meet all their obligations under the law and have great records in corporate social responsibility, and so on.

We refuse to believe this narrative. We are more inclined to buy the argument that most of the stories are PR stuff meant to attract advertising from the big spenders.

That is why it is nearly impossible to find a critical story about the corporate giants- until the trade union calls a strike. We know media organizations are themselves businesses and that some of the owners or directors sit on the boards of the same companies their journalists should investigate. The challenge here is for the media to make up its mind about its primary role of speaking the truth to power – including corporate power.

Something else: there is an entire area of big business that is largely ignored. Whereas the main focus of business news is how well the big firms are doing, the Larry Madowos, Liz Ntonjiras, James Karanis, Wallace Kantais and Steve Kimanis of TV business news in this town aren’t telling us who gets those huge government contracts and how. There are interesting shenanigans going on in that area.

One striking example: The East African news magazine last week carried a story about how the geothermal sector in Kenya has become the new battlefield where Western and Chinese companies are scrambling for contracts. Already a Chinese contractor has signed a secret deal with the government to drill 80 geothermal wells, the paper reported.

What’s interesting about the deal, according to The EastAfrican, is that the contract was not awarded after competitive bidding. Moreover, the state-owned Geothermal Development Company is capable of drilling the wells at a cost far less than what the Chinese will take. No doubt there is a funny smell about that deal.

When are we going to see these kinds of investigations on TV business programmes? Are certain powerful politicians cutting deals with big firms to raise campaign money for 2012 elections? Right now, Kenyans are buying sugar at extremely high prices. What exactly is behind this crisis?

TV business news people may be seated in their glitzy studios lulling us to sleep with tales of how good or bad business is in town while powerful people are colluding with local and foreign corporations to rob us.

You owe this country a lot more, folks.

Whose agenda matters?

On Sunday 11 September 2011 and the following day, the media carried many reports about the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the US. Nearly 3,000 people from many nations, including Kenya, died in the bombings by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

As reported, the attack changed the world in many ways. But what was missing from the analyses is the fact that the global war on terror (GWOT) launched by America and its allies in the aftermath of the tragedy has caused plenty of suffering for millions of innocent people around the world: in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

Under the pretext of GWOT, America and its allies continue to pursue their imperialist agendas in Africa, going after oil and other resources.

Equally disturbing is the fact that over the past decade, the GWOT has had nothing to say about the injustices and inequalities in many parts of the world which feed radicalism and violence.

In carrying the reports (many of them produced in the West), our media appeared to back the mistaken Western notion that the GWOT can give the world peace. It is a lie. Violence only begets violence.

And by the way, are all human lives equal? If so, why did the media give such scant coverage to the ferry tragedy in Zanzibar, when acres of space were dedicated to a memorial recount of 9/11? Tanzania is a sister-state in the East African Community.

While can afford to devote time and space to the 9/11 anniversary, when was the last time anyone saw such coverage of the annual commemorations of the Rwanda genocide in which about one million, yes a million, people were killed in 1994?

Rwanda, in case media houses did not know, is a sister-state in the EAC. Or is what happens in the US more important to us than events in our own region?

All The Bulletin is asking is this: Whose global agenda does out journalism serve?

‘Fuata nyayo’ at SG

And finally, a senior journalist at The Standard recently spoke candidly about how media owners in Kenya meddle with editorial content to suit certain interests. It is something many news consumers are not aware of. Kenyan media is generally thought of as fiercely independent of vested political and other interests, hence the immense public approval ratings in opinion polls.

The Standard man attempted to trace the decline of his paper to 1997 during the election campaign when the paper led with the headline, ‘Why you should vote for me’, or something to that effect. Under that banner was a huge picture of the owner of the media house, who the journalist did not think he needed to name.

With that single editorial decision, no doubt pushed from above, The Standard had blatantly reduced itself to a partisan rag at a time when the public was decidedly tired of then President Daniel arap Moi.

Of course Moi went on to win the election, thanks to the divided opposition and the smart manouvres of ‘the professor of politics’. But, in the opinion of The Standard journalist, his paper lost credibility in the eyes of the public and has never fully recovered.

Today, Moi still regularly makes the news in the Standard Group’s outlets while other media houses generally do not bother with the former president’s preachments. Sometimes Moi doesn’t say or do anything really newsworthy, but he gets space and/or airtime in the paper and on KTN news. Now, we cant begrudge the editors their decision making right. But take, for example, his meeting last Wednesday with Mheshimiwa Chief Justice Willy Mutunga at Kabarnet Gardens in Nairobi. KTN carried the ‘story’, which was just pictures of Moi shaking hands with Mutunga as his ever unsmiling hangers-on – John Lokorio, Lee Njiru, etc – looked on.

As a public service, The Bulletin would like to direct Moi’s admirers and all those who miss him and want to ‘fuata nyayo’ to always buy a copy of The Standard and watch KTN news. You will catch him there busy ‘building the nation’ he sat on for 24 years.

A Better Picture of Women

A news item about women carried last week by a Christian news agency caught the attention of The Bulletin. It was titled, ‘Church holds women dearly, says Cardinal’:

‘The church will continue to support women in their religious activities, says Cardinal Njue. The church, he said, appreciates the important role played by women. “You can always count on us when it comes to assisting you advance your religious activities,” said Cardinal Njue.’

What is interesting here is that, if indeed Cardinal Njue said those words, he succeeded in portraying women as mere appendages to “the church”, which here appears to be “us” – presumably Njue and certain other people not named in the report.

But since The Bulletin is not a theological journal, that as far as we are concerned is the smaller sin. The bigger one is the manner in which the news agency basically stripped down a major women’s event to the bare bones of just one man’s views.

Njue spoke at the third convention of the Kenya National Council of Catholic Women (KNCCW) held at Nyayo Stadium. The function was attended by Catholic women from around the country.

“Earlier, the KNCCW chairlady, Mrs. Emily Oduma, had urged the church, through Cardinal Njue, to assist them to put up a retreat centre in Nairobi…” the story went on.

Even the organization’s leader appeared to think, according to the report, that “the church” constitutes Cardinal Njue and others, the women excluded.

Perhaps if the big man had not attended the function, and only the women were present, the agency would have considered the event less newsworthy.

This is generally a common practice in Kenyan news reporting. It is often the big man, yes man, who is the focus of media attention – even when the event is by women and about women.

But that tends to change in most negative news, where the media invariably depicts women as the victims. If the church story under discussion was about a tragedy, the report would most certainly have appealed to public sympathy by dramatizing the suffering of the women involved.

Media coverage of the drought and famine in Kenya and the Horn of Africa comes to mind. Who did those haunting pictures on TV and in the newspapers feature? Men? Yes, a few elderly men, but mostly women and children. Check out the pictures published by Daily Nation last Wednesday in a feature titled, ‘When the shillings poured in’ (DN2, Pg.2)

Women are often portrayed not only as the victims of some failures or tragedies but they are also presented as being dependent on the men for their very lives. They are not equal partners to the men in any endeavour. Without the men they cannot on their own do anything. You get that impression in the church story.

A harambee was conducted during the women’s convention for construction of a retreat centre. Whose contributions were reported by the news agency?

“Cardinal Njue made his contribution of Ksh200,000, the Kenya Catholic Secretariat gave Ksh100, 000, while the Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Archbishop Alain Paul Nuncio (Lebeaupin?) gave Ksh30,000.”

Apparently, no women gave any money worth reporting about.

This picture of Woman is, of course, not only false but grossly unjust in the 21st Century world. Everywhere in this country, women have demonstrated throughout history that they are achievers in minor and spectacular ways.

It was with this in mind, we believe, that The EastAfrican newsweekly devoted 15 pages in last week’s issue to celebrate the region’s female achievers. Reading through the special coverage, a better picture of Woman emerges.

We have said here that we acknowledge the right of religion to organize its own space: a religious entity is free, for example, to define for its followers what constitutes “the church”. But it is unacceptable that a religious organization, its spokesmen or affiliates, promotes perspectives and ideologies that run contrary to the values of the Constitution.

Our Supreme Law recognizes that women and men are equal in dignity and rights. In this country, Christianity is quite influential. No one can underestimate the force of its views on the minds of many citizens. Therefore the views of church leaders or spiritual organizations about women must not be allowed to erode constitutional values.

Church leaders – largely men – have said they support the Constitution despite opposing it at the referendum. That is great. They have even asked to be included in its implementation. Good.

But such involvement must not be defined narrowly as appointment of religious figures to key commissions. It means, quite significantly, that religious leaders (and politicians, maize roasters, ‘dere na konda wa mathree’, everyone) should use their space to champion the values of the Constitution. It is the duty of every citizen.

It would, therefore, be insincere for a religious leader to purport to support the Constitution while undermining its values in his sermons.

As well, in this New Order church media – and all other media – must champion the Constitution. Obsession with the big man and the depiction of women as always the victims, or as somehow inferior to men, should be left to the Neanderthals.

The journalist as citizen

Radio presenter Joshua arap Sang’ who is facing serious criminal charges told the International Criminal Court at The Hague last week that he is a professional journalist with experience spanning 12 years. His ambition is to be the greatest broadcast journalist not just in Kenya but in the world.

Sang’ said that, having been trained at diploma and degree levels, he fully understood journalism and its ethical codes. He therefore could not have used his position as Kass FM presenter to take part in organizing killings, maiming and mass displacement of people during the post-election violence of 2007/8 as alleged by the ICC Chief Prosecutor Louis Moreno-Ocampo.

Instead, Sang’ said, he used his programmes to promote peaceful co-existence among the different communities living in the Rift Valley. He invited leaders of different political persuasions to his shows. He wasn’t a member of ODM and couldn’t have been party to planning and executing the violence that targeted perceived PNU sympathizers.

In fact, being a journalist, Sang’ couldn’t have been a member of any political party because he always strived to give equal opportunity to all sides of the political debate ahead of the election, he said.

Well, it is up to the ICC judges hearing Sang’ to determine the veracity of his claims. But his arguments make a certain erroneous claim about ethical journalism that needs correcting.

Whereas accuracy and fairness are the first cardinal principles of journalism according to the Code of Conduct and Practice of Journalism in Kenya, it is not unethical for a journalist to be a member of a political party. He or she retains his constitutional right to the freedoms of association and of opinion. That is why a journalist expresses his or her political opinion by voting for a certain candidate at elections.

What ethical journalism requires, though, is that, in the public interest, every effort should be made to ensure that one’s personal views on politics or any subject do not influence their professional work.

“Journalists, while free to be partisan, should distinguish clearly in their reports between comment, conjecture and fact,” the Code stipulates.

All we would like to state here is that the impression must not be created that journalists should not belong to political parties, champion political causes or hold political opinions. As citizens, they are entitled to these and other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Tuju’s presidential bid

Several months ago, Mr. Raphael Tuju, then a presidential advisor on media and ethnic relations, embarked on nationwide tours to promote nationalism especially among the youth through an organization called Kenya Hope Foundation.

Tuju’s initiative received plenty of coverage. Everywhere he went there were news reports about it. But here at The Bulletin we were a bit skeptical.

Tuju was appointed to his job, a public office paid for by the taxpayer, shortly after he lost his seat in the 2007 election. There have been numerous initiatives to promote peace and unity in Kenya since the post-election violence. Why did it take him more than three years to realize the importance of a nationwide campaign against tribalism? Was that part of his mandate, considering that we have the Kibunjia Commission?

The answer came the other week when Tuju quit his job and announced his entry into the race to succeed President Kibaki. It is impossible not to conclude that the Kenya Hope Foundation activities were actually part of his strategy to launch his political agenda – although the media decided not to see things that way.

Nobody has seemed interested in asking Tuju any questions. The launch of his presidential campaign at a Nairobi hotel has received considerable media attention.

What does Tuju stand for and how has he demonstrated it? What did he achieve in his past political jobs? How has President Kibaki and the coalition government benefited from Tuju’s supposed expert prescriptions on media and ethnic issues?

Did Kenyans get value for money? Is Kibaki less tribal now, three years on? Or was the job a reward for Tuju’s support for PNU in 2007? What is the man’s vision for Kenya and how does he intend to take us there?

But as far as the media is concerned, that does not seem to be the way to frame the discussion about Tuju’s presidential ambition. What is important is Tuju’s attempt to reach out to the youth (of Nairobi’s Eastlands basically), as reported in the Daily Nation on Wednesday.

“In the race for State House that has recently seen politicians embrace the use of social networks, former minister Raphael Tuju has generated the biggest buzz with a video in Sheng that is generating plenty of comments on Facebook and Twitter…”

“Rapho”, as he introduces himself, refuses to be identified with any ethnic group and simply announces “kabila yangu ni mkenya…”

We are supposed to believe, by this report, that tribalists are those people who announce their ethnic identity on Twitter, Facebook or even on the street. Really?

Tuju’s populist attempt to fight negative ethnicity and the media’s adulation of his moves are really simplistic. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with belonging to a tribe. The real issue is treating all Kenyans equally without discrimination based on any grounds whatsoever. That is what our Constitution says.

The idea that Tuju, or anyone else for that matter, can help erase the various grounds of “otherness” – or that this is necessary – in order to build one Kenya is sheer rhetoric. It is even dangerous: any attempt to destroy pluralism is an assault on human freedom.

Why should a Luhyia, Gikuyu or Omogusii be harangued into feeling ashamed of his identity? Why should any Kenyan reject her ethnic identity? How would that end tribalism? How would that cut the dominance of one ethnic group in Kenya’s politics and economy?

The only meaningful project is for all citizens to embrace unity in diversity. And Kenyans are capable of that.

So, is Mr. Raphel Tuju the man who could lead Kenya to the promise of the New Order? Honestly, we don’t know. It will be up to the voters to decide – if his name ends up on the ballot.

For now, all that the media owes Kenyans is the duty of probing political aspirants beyond the excitement they might cause on Facebook or Twitter.

Week’s ugliest intro

And finally, the sterling performance of the sons and daughters of the Motherland in Daegu, South Korea, last week was in the mind of a Nairobi journalist it seems. He must have concluded that he could pay no better tribute to our true heroes than to employ an athletics metaphor in the intro of his story. Good intention, but the resulting mess made unbearable reading:

“On starting blocks of race to pick head of the new electoral body, manager of elections next year and overseer of demarcation of 80 new constituencies, stand only four people.”

This could really be stated simply and clearly, which is what good communication is actually about.

The grotesque prose was on the Front Page of The Standard newspaper on Friday, September 2, under the headline, ‘Only four apply for top elections post.’

How did that amazing intro pass?