Why must politicians make the news even when they haven’t said anything? Even when no one has actually spoken about them? Why are journalists’ ears always so quick to pick up only politics from a whole lot of things people say? Why does the media in Kenya appear to be obsessed with a handful of politicians in a country of about 40 million people?
We are not the first ones to ask these questions nor – we are afraid – will we be the last.
The questions are in relation to a story carried in the Nation on 4 May under the headline, “Catholics back Uhuru and Ruto on election bid.”
Now, Nation is not just any other paper on the newsstand. Its slogan is simply “The Truth”. Tall order. Jesus Christ himself reportedly told people he was “the Truth”.
But to its credit, Nation has been described as “the newspaper of record” by its admirers (who are legion, not just in Kenya but around the world). People in some parts of Kenya would speak of “Nation” when what they actually mean is “newspaper”.
Now, Catholics are the single largest religious group in Kenya. That is not all. The Catholic Church is a very influential global organisation, the only religious entity with formal diplomatic relations with nearly all UN member states, including Kenya. So a story claiming that the church has “backed” two Kenyan politicians is big stuff.
“Deputy Prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Eldoret North MP William Ruto are free to contest for the presidency in the coming General Election despite facing criminal charges at the International Criminal Court, the Catholic Church said on Thursday,” Nation reported.
“The two were eligible for the office unless it was “proved beyond any reasonable doubt that they were guilty, ”said bishop Philip Sulumeti of the Diocese of Kakamega, who read a statement by the Kenya Episcopal Conference the church’s top most organ.
The simple fact of the matter, however, is that Catholics did not backed Uhuru and Ruto on their presidential ambitions. The statement to which this report refers, a copy of which ET has, says nothing of the sort.
Catholic bishops read out a statement to journalists on Thursday, 3 May, in which they addressed themselves to a number of national issues, ranging from slow implementation of the Constitution, the plight of IDPs, insecurity, political mobilisation along tribal lines, to the demands of Mombasa Republican Council, the media and the campaign to legalize (actually decriminalize) prostitution in Kenya.
None of these issues was mentioned even in passing in the Nation report!
How then does the media become a platform for meaningful discussion of national issues when the country’s leading newspaper totally ignores the views expressed by a significant segment of society about those issues?
Instead, Nation chose to focus on what the bishops allegedly said about the cases at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Big deal. Well, whatever the bishops or anyone else says about the cases at The Hague is actually inconsequential to the process itself. Yet that is what Nation decided was the most important thing for Kenyans in the bishops’ statement!
Anyway, did the bishops back Uhuru and Ruto? Here is what they said regarding the ICC (not the two politicians):
“Dear Kenyans, we have noticed the heat generated by the International Criminal Court’s indictment of four Kenyans over their alleged involvement in the post-election violence of 2007/8. We should keep in mind the principle in law [that] one is innocent until proven guilty (Constitution of Kenya 2010, Art. 50 (2) a). We pray and believe that the court process will be an opportunity for Kenyans to know the truth because the truth will set us free.”
It should be noted that this paragraph appeared far down in the bishops’ statement after they had spoken about many other weighty matters of public interest.
Does the quoted paragraph above constitute Catholics backing Uhuru and Ruto on their election bids? Only remotely: to the extent that the bishops restated the legal dictum – which many other people have referred to – that people facing criminal cases are innocent until proven guilty.
In this case, Nation is guilty of putting words in the mouths of bishops. How?
That legal principle the bishops cited does not apply only to Uhuru and Ruto, or to the political interests of accused persons. There are four, not two, Kenyans charged at the ICC. Francis Muthaura and Joshua arap Sang are the others.
Even if we granted that the bishops were talking about politics, three of the ICC four suspects, not just Uhuru and Ruto, have expressed political ambitions. The third one is radio journalist Joshua Sang who wants to be senator for Trans-Nzoia County.
Why was the bishops’ statement, then, not understood by the Nation to mean Catholics are backing Joshua arap Sang’s election bid as well?
Interestingly, the bishops had stated that they supported no politician. “Our role as church is not to anoint or endorse any leader or political party but to educate Kenyans on the qualities of a good leader,” they said. The Nation ignored that.
Perhaps the paper wanted to interpret for its readers what the bishops meant? But why should that interpretation only touch on Uhuru and Ruto? Why can’t people be left to interpret things for themselves? When did it become the job of a newspaper (or any other type of news outlet) to tell people what to think? Commentary is reserved for the opinion pages. It must not be passed off as the news.
Incidentally, the bishops had asked the media to be professional. “The media has also its important role to play to uphold and safeguard peaceful elections by being balanced, fair, sensitive and objective in their reporting. They should desist from tendencies to favour individual interests.”
This good advice seemed to have fallen on deaf ears at Nation. Their report obviously excited the two politicians mentioned and their supporters, while it caused massive confusion among Kenyans, Catholics especially.
That was not “The Truth”, or was it?