The Watchdog Needs a Watchdog

NAIROBI, Kenya— There is a dark side of the Kenyan press that most journalists would rather not talk about. It’s not a secret, but it’s shameful and embarrassing. Everyone knows it goes on everyday. Editors and scholars acknowledge that it’s a big problem. But they don’t know what to do about it. You won’t see it published anywhere in the Kenyan media because it makes Kenyan journalists look more like hypocrites than heroes who have been at the forefront in the fight against corruption in the country.

“It makes it harder for [journalists] to say to us: ‘You are corrupt,’” says a Nairobi City Council police officer who wants to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Kenya has a history of animosity against the press. Since1963 when the East African country got independent, journalists have been arrested, tortured and threatened while in pursuit of the news. The most recent aggression by the government was on March 3 last year when dozens of police officers—under the orders of National Security Minister John Michuki—raided The Standard, Kenya’s number two daily, and its television station, burned newspapers and confiscated equipment. The hostility followed the newspaper’s reports charging that President Mwai Kibaki had secretly met with Kalonzo Musyoka, one of his fiercest critics. Both Musyoka and Kibaki denied having taken part in the alleged meeting.

Michuki, when responding to press inquiries on the raid, is reported to have said: “If you rattle a snake, you have to be prepared to be bitten.”

Such acts by the government only strengthen the resolve of the media to continue fighting for greater press freedom, according to Wambui Kiai, the director of the School of Journalism at University. of Nairobi

“The attack on The Standard was a setback in the fight to enhance press freedom but it has made the media industry pay close attention. Journalists now realize that they have to lobby in Parliament for their interests,” Kiai says.

Kiai says that in the past Kenyan media did not seem to follow what was going on in Parliament. This, she says, is the reason they were surprised when in May 2002 Parliament passed a Media Bill that threatened to curtail press freedom. The bill requires publishers to buy a one million-shilling bond (approximately $15,000) before getting a license to publish. This is a huge amount of money especially for magazines and small publishers.
Preferring self-regulation to government-imposed control, the media industry responded by creating the Media Council of Kenya to address complaints and improve journalistic ethical standards. But maintaining ethics in Kenyan journalism has become one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. Journalists still take bribes to kill or alter stories that are damaging to politicians and wealthy business people.

 “The Kenyan media belong to a class of elites,” says Samson Ajiayo, a Nairobi-based youth organizer “Journalists speak about human rights but do very little for the poor without whom the fight for freedom of the press could never have been won.”

Ajiayo, who was expelled from Egerton in 1991 at the peak of the fight to legalize multiparty politics, says the media have let the Kenyan people down. The Standard’s Alternate City Editor Maina Muiruri doesn’t agree that the press has let Kenyans down. Neither does he deny that corruption exists in the press. University

“It’s openly known in the industry that journalists take bribes from politicians,” Muiruri says.

Muiruri, however, blames the problem on the industry’s system of hiring journalists on a temporary basis. Kenyan media rely heavily on freelancers who get paid by the story, he says.

“Although few media companies make loses, competition makes it harder to persuade owners to pay journalists more,” Muiruri says.

Adams G.R. Oloo, a professor of political science at the University says while it’s true that corruption in the press has economic roots, he thinks it is unfair to lay the blame on freelance journalists. Looking at the Kenyan media it’s obvious that politicians make the news every day, he says. of Nairobi

Oloo says freelancers and journalists who work on short-term contracts are usually new college graduates who have no contact with senior politicians. He says editors and senior journalists are most likely to take bribes.

“The bribing of journalist continues because we are in a culture that tolerates corruption,” Oloo says.


About Edwin Okong'o - Mshale Contributing Editor

Edwin Okong'o is a Mshale Contributing Editor. Formerly he was the newspaper's editor.

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