19 June 2017

Kenya: Something Fishy About Arrest of 'Nation' Writer

Photo: Daily Nation
Nation Media Group's Walter Menya.

Two unusual things happened in Nairobi on Sunday. The first was the arrest of a journalist, and the second how the news was broken.

Mr Walter Menya, a writer with the Sunday Nation, was take into custody for allegedly soliciting a bribe to publish a story, whose details remained scanty last evening.

However, while I cannot refute the claims of impropriety on the part of the writer, I must stay I found something fishy about the way the whole saga was reported.

The story, complete with an accompanying picture, was broken on Facebook by a blogger associated with the government.

"Breaking news," she posted. "Senior Sunday Nation writer Walter Menya has just been arrested for allegedly soliciting (a) bribe to publish a big fake story. Keep it here for more information as the story develops."

FIRST HAND INFORMATION

Minutes later, the same blogger posted another photo of Mr Menya in handcuffs at the DCI headquarters on Kiambu Road.

At the time, neither the senior management at Nation Media Group nor Mr Menya's immediate supervisor knew that something was afoot.

Yet a blogger was getting first-hand information from inside one of Kenya's most secure institutions, for onward publication on social media.

Whichever way you look at it, this reeks of a scheme to humiliate Mr Menya and, by extension, his employer.

To a casual observer, this was just another titillating story that needed to set Facebook and Twitter afire, but when you start looking at it from the wider perspective of media freedom in Kenya and the regular assault on mainstream publishers within Kenya's democratic space, you begin to see a worrying trend.

ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

For the past five years, there has been a silent but spirited campaign, especially on social media and public meetings, to paint Kenya's independent media as the enemy of the people.

A 2015 report by Freedom House, a US-government-funded human rights organisation, lamented Kenya's worsening media environment, pointing out that "political pressure, coupled with threats and intimidation, have encouraged self-censorship on sensitive topics such as security operations and major political events".

And, in an article to newsrooms earlier this year, Mr Victor Bwire of the Media Council of Kenya raised concerns regarding the safety of Kenya's media professionals.

"Media independence and content distribution have been affected in Kenya because of harassment," wrote Mr Bwire.

"A number of journalists have been attacked and physically assaulted by security officers and goons, which is against the Windhoek Declaration."

JOURNALISTS HARASSED

Mr Bwire went on to warn that "many media houses and individual journalists are being trolled and harassed online for the content they produce".

The credibility of mainstream media faces great assault from all corners.

Traditionally, journalists have had to navigate through state licensing, taxation, and regulation in the performance of their duties, but now they are being forced to be wary of a social media brigade that exists solely to troll them, disparage their character, and discredit their stories.

ALLEGATIONS

Do not get me wrong. I am not questioning the allegations against Mr Menya (who will have to defend himself in court on Monday), nor am I asking for absolute freedoms on the part of the media.

No. I understand very well that freedoms often come with responsibilities tagging at the tails of coats.

But what I find nauseating, nay, intimidating, is this new, preachy, in-your-face manner in which journalists and their output are critiqued, harassed, trolled and otherwise humiliated in this country.

Mr Mwinzi, an editor with the Nation, is a member of the Kenyan chapter of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' committee for Strengthening Media and Society

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