30 November 2012

Kenya: The Saitoti Saga - Who Is Entitled to Privacy?


The Star's November 13 front-page splash story "Saitoti widow sued over 'stolen son'", accompanied by a large photo showing Zachary Musengi Saitoti and the wife of the late minister, was certainly an attention-grabber. It was based on a court proceeding instituted by a Subukia couple who claimed that Zachary was their son who had been abducted as a child. Three more front-page stories followed over the next four days, with another small front-page story on November 29.

My first thought as I read the initial stories and looked at the pictures was to wonder how Zachary felt. Here was a young man whose family life, as described by those who knew him, remained very private. And judging from the website of his photography company and his online presence, Zachary never sought to draw attention to the Saitoti family or to capitalize on his father's fame.

Yet suddenly here he was with the media spotlight turned on him--most dramatically by the Star, but also by other media--with a ferocious intensity.

Without doubt, the Star stories were popular: newspaper sales on the first three days were very strong, according to Managing Director William Pike, and hits on the website versions were on a par with big political stories.

But had the Star invaded Zachary's privacy? Had it been fair?

Only a few readers seem to have given the matter much thought. One, in a posting on the Star website, implored: "Give comfort to your mum Zac. Media, please give the Saitotis a break/peace." Elsewhere, columnist Gitau Warigi asked in the Sunday Nation, "Does Zachary Musengi...deserve his life and parentage played out in the glare of national publicity?"

A person close to the Saitoti family told me that Zachary was "devastated" by the media coverage.

In an affidavit three days later, Zachary described the claims of the Subukia couple as "replete with falsehood" and stated that the press had made no effort "to seek the truth from me or my mother" before publishing the couple's claims.

According to Pike, the main reason for giving the story so much attention was that "it was a sensitive human interest story that caught the imagination of the Kenyan public." Because it was a matter before the courts, he said, the paper had no obligation to seek comment before reporting the details. But, he noted, the Star did later run the family's response.

Pike said he did not believe that the issue of invasion of privacy applied in Zachary's case. For one thing, he said, Zachary is not a child. But quite apart from that, he said, the likelihood of public attention being paid to one's actions is "a burden you have to bear if you're the child of a famous parent."

Two years ago, the Toronto Star ran a story about the youngest child of Canada's late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that had parallels to the Saitoti saga. The young woman, whose birth, the story reminded readers, had resulted from an affair, declined a request for an interview. But the paper had still managed to put together an article by assigning a reporter to follow her around her university campus.

Unlike the Saitoti story, this one caused outrage among the paper's readers. But as the paper's public editor noted, it was also the most read article on the paper's website. This, she said, raised the question of "whether journalism that is of great interest to the public is journalism in the public interest."

The writer of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, also spoke to the privacy issue in testimony before the recently-concluded Leveson inquiry into press ethics in the UK. Describing incidents including the unauthorized publishing of photographs of her daughter in a swimsuit, she argued, "A child, no matter who their parents are, deserves privacy. They have no choice in who their parents are."

Closer to home, Franz Kruger, the ombudsman (another name for public editor) of South Africa's Mail & Guardian, addressed privacy issues--though not in a family context--in a column he wrote three years ago about the gender testing of 18-year-old Caster Semenya.

Noting that Semenya had become an object of public attention only because of her athletic achievements, Kruger sharply criticized journalists for using a leak of information about the tests as a flimsy "public interest" excuse to publish sensational details about the results. And, in a line that could have been written about the Saitoti case, he maintained, "It might have been difficult to ignore the claims completely, but surely they could have been handled more carefully."

That's what I think, too--about both Caster Semenya and Zachary Saitoti. Yes, the claim involving Zachary Saitoti was news. But it should not have been plastered on the Star's front page four times over five days. Like the daughters of Pierre Trudeau and J.K. Rawlings, Zachary didn't choose his parents and didn't seek out public attention. In such cases, it seems to me, the media need to think hard about how much attention is appropriate.

Young people, in particular, are now constantly being warned not to put anything on their Facebook pages that they might regret later. They have no way, however, of preventing an editor from deciding that they are "news".

In the case of Zachary Saitoti, the Star seems to have exercised sound judgment about what will sell newspapers. And its conduct may not have been technically an invasion of privacy, under either its own Code of Conduct or that of the Media Council. But I think it was guilty of a lack of compassion--which in my book is no less a failing.

A few weeks ago, Star manager Dickens Olewe passed on several tweets about the lack of interest shown by all the media in an incident in Samburu in which 13 people were killed. "Violence has become 'normalised' in Kenya," photojournalist/activist Boniface Mwangi wrote, and then pointed out how the Star and its competitors had all played the story inside the paper (p. 16 in the case of the Star).

I thought about this at the time of the November police killings in the Suguta Valley. The first report in the Star, when the total of the known dead was already 23, ran on page 5. On the following day, with the death toll now at 32, a second report made it onto the front page. But even then, the killings weren't accorded page one's prime position. Instead, the splash spot went to--you guessed it--the Zachary Saitoti story.

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