For a while after Kenya Defence Forces ended Operation Linda Nchi and placed its soldiers under the command of the AU forces, AMISOM, there was little news about the pursuit of Al Shabaab inside Somalia.
Media houses no longer sent reporters to the “frontline”. KDF had stopped giving media briefings as well, even though Kenya had nearly 5,000 troops in Somalia.
In a story published in Nation on May 22, Col Cyrus Oguna who had become the media face of Operation Linda Nchi said he no longer gave briefings about KDF because AMISOM public communications was in the hands of a senior officer from Djibouti.
But all this changed dramatically at the end of last month. One day journalists were busy covering politicians and the next they were off on a military flight to Somalia to witness the liberation of Afmadow, described as an Al Shabaab stronghold.
The big question is whether anyone should really believe those dispatches from the “frontline” by reporters embedded with the soldiers.
Citizen TV’s series of reports about the capture of Afmadow was perhaps the most intriguing. They had pictures of soldiers and local people dancing in jubilation. Kenyan soldiers were shown assisting alleged Al Shabaab gunmen whom they had injured in the battle for Afmadow. And so on...
At one point a Citizen TV reporter was shown wearing military uniform and a bulletproof vest. It was not clear why he was not given a machine-gun as well. Military
uniform for civilians? News anchors told viewers that their crews were “embedded” with KDF in Somalia. That is a new terminology for Kenyan audiences. It is the first time in the history of this country that journalists have been embedded with soldiers. Perhaps someone should have explained what this means and its implications.
Citizen TV’s editorial chief Farida Karoney told ET that embedding news crews with military teams is a common practice in war reporting. Maybe. But still it is not common in Kenya. “It simply means that the journalists operate under military conditions and their movements may be restricted. Journalists will be subject to the same security conditions as members of the armed forces and will camp with the military in their off-site camps,” she said.
Well, it is not that simple. Unknown to many Kenyan media consumers, embedding journalists with soldiers is a controversial practice that greatly compromises journalistic independence. Journalists are not free to report whatever they see or hear. Their reports are heavily censored by the military. British photojournalist Kate Holt who has covered American and British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan was early last year embedded with AMISOM in Somalia. She told a media forum in Nairobi last November that military restrictions can be so bad that journalists sometimes report only propaganda.
While in Somalia, many AMISOM soldiers were killed by Al Shabaab and other militias but Kate could not report this.
“Every time I saw the body of a soldier being repatriated I wondered why it was not being reported,” she said.
“One day 52 Burundian soldiers were killed. I had access and could photograph them but I wasn’t allowed to report it. And it became clear why the AU did not want this reported: they felt that it was a matter of national pride and they didn’t want to make it seem to Al Shabaab that they were losing, or that there was any indication of weakness. It was the same in Afghanistan: the Americans did not want reports about how many deaths there were.”
Karoney on her part insisted that their reporters were completely free to report things as they saw them.
“As in all editorial reports our journalists will do everything possible to file objective reports, from what they can observe, feel, experience, record and verify subject to the operating environment and their own personal safety. The journalists were in these same towns and could talk to locals on and off record.”
That sounds quite fantastic. In reality, embedding journalists basically benefits the military. They exercise firm control over what is reported and thus use the media to tell only their side of the story to win public support for the war.
And KDF has so far succeeded in this. No one is asking tough questions.