21 January 2013

Kenya: Uhuru-Bashing and Controversial Photos

Photo: Capital FM
Uhuru Kenyatta (file photo).


Complaints of Star bias against Presidential aspirant Uhuru Kenyatta remain common, both on the Star website and in emails to the public editor.

Typical of the latter is one a few weeks ago from Mbugua Kangethe who wrote, "of late, I have detected that, whether it is by accident or by design, the editorial policy has turned to 'Uhuru bashing' at every available opportunity".

Another, from Ernest Gitonga, complained about a Star report on alleged European travel bans against Uhuru and William Ruto and also asked why columnist Ngunjiri Wambugu is not identified as having a post in the Raila Odinga campaign.

I have tried to keep a fairly close eye on the Star's coverage of the presidential campaign over the past few months, and one conclusion I've come to is that for the most part, the news columns remain neutral in tone and even-handed in coverage.

In the case of the travel ban, for instance, the original story made clear that it was not an official European Union action, even though the paper was persuaded to clarify that point further in a 'For the Record' item.

Columnists are another matter, because many of them are so obviously Raila supporters. Managing director William Pike says he continues to try to get more Uhuru enthusiasts writing for the paper, but without much success.

Even as things stand, however, I think the paper could do better. Gitonga is right, for example, that anyone with an active political role (Wambugu is director of political affairs in the Raila campaign secretariat) should always be so identified.

Editor Catherine Gicheru says not doing so was an oversight that will not be repeated. But there is a third factor that I think may account more than any other for the Star's perceived anti-Uhuru bias, and that is what Pike has described as the paper's institutional support of the "pro-reform agenda".

What that means, as I have seen it play out over the Star's five-and-a-half year history, is that the paper identifies itself with the forces of 'reform', however broadly one defines that term.

This is in keeping with the Star's attempt to set itself apart from its competitors by appealing in particular to younger and more educated readers who, as a group, tend toward liberal views.

Thus, I would argue, the paper has given extensive coverage to the International Criminal Court not because the ICC has suits against Uhuru and Ruto but because the ICC is widely perceived as part of a growing worldwide emphasis on human rights.

Along the same lines, any Kenyan 'civil society' group with an issue it wants to put before the public, from disability rights to land reform, has a good chance of getting a hearing in the Star.

It follows then, that Uhuru, who stands at the pinnacle of Kenya's ruling and moneyed class, suffers a kind of unspoken guilt by association whenever the Star reports on problems or failures of any sort.

And by the same token Raila, whose father had close ties to the Soviet Union and who experienced three bouts of detention during the Moi years, has benefited from an aura, deserved or not, as an agent of change.

Pike says he remains convinced that the paper's pro-reform approach makes sense from both a business and a public interest perspective.

"We want a transparent, democratic, accountable and technocratic Kenya," he says. "That's the agenda that the Star and Radio Africa Group (its parent company) are pursuing."

But how can the paper be pro-reform without being perceived as "anti" too many individuals or institutions? That's a question the Star will have to grapple with regardless of who wins the election. The Star will also have to attract more Kenyans who like its shake-things-up attitude if it is to continue to grow.

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What is it about photos that causes more criticism and comment than anything else (except possibly political cartoons) in the paper?

The latest example, and a heartbreakingly sad one it is, involves a Reuters photo of a mother and daughter killed in the Tana Delta violence.

It appeared on page one of the January 11 Star, prompting reader Joseph Orego to complain, "I had to avoid the paper because of the picture. It was really moving and I couldn't take another look at it."

The Media Council of Kenya also immediately weighed in, charging that the Star's use of the photo had been "reckless and is most likely to aggravate emotions especially in the volatile Tana Delta and other parts of the country".

The Council cited prohibitions in its Code of Conduct on using photos and names that could harm the persons concerned; on unnecessary intrusion into grief or shock; and on using photographs of "abhorrent scenes" unless such use "will serve the public interest".

According to Star editors, a lengthy process of discussion and debate preceded the decision to use the photo. This included soliciting opinions from an outside lawyer and two nationally-known veteran journalists.

To news editor Charles Kerich, the strongest argument in favour of using the photo was that, after months of reports on the violence that seemed to have stirred little public outrage, it showed in a powerful but not gory way the dimensions of the human tragedy.

The very specificity of the two individuals, he argues, was what gave the photo its particular poignancy. I agree on this one with Kerich and the other Star editors, as well as with a reader who wrote in to applaud the paper's decision, calling it "such a simple way to portray the sad but real face of Kenya today".

I also wish the Media Council would focus more on its roles as mediator and neutral investigator of complaints rather than so often rushing to judgment before it has even heard the facts of a case.


This is my final column as the Star's public editor, a job I took on in early 2011 with a mandate to serve as readers' advocate and in-house critic.

When editor Catherine Gicheru, managing director William Pike and I agreed to give the experiment a try, following consultations with the Star's senior editors, we signed a contract promising no interference on management's part and a maximum two-year commitment on mine.

I'm happy to report that management have scrupulously adhered to their side of the bargain (although there have been a few days when I felt a bit of a chill as I entered the newsroom...).

I'm also happy to report that the initiative has been deemed sufficiently successful that a new public editor will soon be appointed to take over the role.

I've very much enjoyed this chance to engage with you, the Star's readers, both through private email exchanges and through my column.

In fact, one thing I hope the new public editor will do is to be much more active on social media that I've been, because this is now such a significant way of bringing the public into the news gathering operation.

Of all the responses to the column that I've received, the one I value most came from Kiprono Kittony, the chairman of Radio Africa.

It appeared in my inbox the morning after the paper ran one of my columns touching on an issue with financial as well as other implications for the company.

I don't mind telling you that my heart sank when I saw the sender's name. But in his brief message, Kittony said that he had found the article fair and that it "has put the publication on the moral high ground that we should aspire to be at".

To me, Kittony offered the best possible argument for having a public editor: rather than just serving as a venting mechanism for readers, it actually benefits the company.

And that brings me in turn to letting you know what I'll be doing once I leave the Star, which is to try to encourage the establishment of more public editors (or news ombudsmen as they are often called) in Africa.

My first step will be to spend a few months as a visiting fellow at Cambridge University in England, doing a study on the value of news ombudsmen around the world.

After that, I'll be back in Kenya, using the data I've collected and working with my news colleagues here and elsewhere on the continent to try to persuade more media owners and editors to follow the Star's example.

So stay in touch (karen.rothmyer@gmail.com) and keep sending your criticisms and comments to publiceditor@the-star.co.ke.

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