Kenya: Football Poll Feuds Reinforce Findings Sports Journalists Major Cheerleaders of the Game

21 October 2020

Journalism is often said to be a noble profession.

It is not exactly a well-paying job but practitioners of the trade have continued to bravely fight for the public good, constantly demanding accountability from the authorities, who are in power under the trust of the people.

No wonder many, high up in authority, frustrated by the prying eyes of the "pesky" journalists holding them to account, resort to threats and insults.

One government minister, I recall reading some years back, incensed by a critical report in the media, fumed that "journalists were conceived on river banks and road sides."

More recently the dynamic duo Uhuruto -- President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, sarcastically said newspapers were for wrapping meat and matumbo (animal entrails).

Heavy influence

What a compliment! Former Nation training manager Frank Whalley used to tell us, when people in authority get offended by your writing then know you are doing a good job.

But it is never easy. Those in authority invariably have heavy influence that they bring to bear on independent media.

Scholars have studied this interaction concluding, with empirical evidence, that people with economic and political power influence what is covered by the media.

I have been a sports writer for some years now and have observed first-hand the close relationship that journalists cultivate with their sources.

In most cases the job demands it. It is only when the reporter get very close to that federation official, that club coach, those star players, that he or she will be able to get stories to write for the audience. And the scribes can only get close, in many cases, by writing favourable stories. Conversely, if they write critical pieces their sources shy away, doors get closed and the writer invariably misses the big stories.

Professional line

So, it is not uncommon for journalists to cross that professional line, by getting too close to their sources -- with unwritten benefits, that it is no longer about critical writing, but penning stories that paint the sport and the personalities in good light.

In fact, the sports press has been labelled "The World's Best Advertising Agency" meaning they concentrate on the big events on the field and the track that are under the spotlight of the television to mutual benefit. That the sports press has great difficulty reporting anything that takes place outside the angle of television cameras and after the stadium spotlights have been turned off.

The coverage of local football best illustrates this. Removing Covid-19 from the equation this year, several sports journalists have written in many platforms calling for football to return to the pitch without interrogating why it has not returned.

The facts have been clear. Since December when the Football Kenya Federation elections were nullified by the Sport Dispute Tribunal the sport has literally been in limbo.

The elections were actually cancelled twice by the Tribunal over legal and constitutional issues. And even as they were held for the third time last Saturday, matters had not been satisfactorily resolved.

Many sports journalists were meanwhile rooting for the decidedly flawed polls to take place regardless of the shroud of legal and ethical concerns.

"Let football resume", "better we have action on the pitch" "let football win" the pro-election scribes said, many presumably sympathetic to federation president Nick Mwendwa.

Two wrongs

One even referred to Mwendwa as "my president" on a live television show. The few that stood up to write critically about the electoral process and a president hell-bent on retaining his seat were labelled "anti-football" persons who had been "bought by the other side".

Even when questions were raised about the federation's failure to meet the requirements of the Sports Act, several journalists had the audacity to argue that that piece of legislation was too stringent. They further averred that other sports federations had not aligned their operations with the Act. As if two wrongs make a right.

Others questioned why the Sports Registrar was being rigid with FKF notwithstanding the fact the federation had clearly failed to follow the law as it is.

It is telling that only a few were questioning the shortcomings of the electoral process. But the biggest cheerleading was in the way some journalists framed the supposed mega sponsorships deals signed by Mwendwa and betting firm BetKing and pay television station StarTimes.

It is crystal clear in the federation constitution that no such deal can be entered without the authority of the FKF NEC, which was not constituted then. But there was little interrogation of this with most coverage talking about how the deals were good for football, money was coming to football, football was returning to our television screens and so on and so forth.

There are many questions about the management style of the federation president, lingering queries about financial accountability and even eligibility of federation members, but the pliant scribes have acquiesced "bora mpira uwanjani" - "as long as we have football on the pitch"

But what should I expect? If this divided country cannot meet the requirements of the constitution on such straight forward matters as gender and regional balance in government, what is football?

Talk of Kenya regaining its lost glory in football under the able leadership of the federation can only continue to be amplified by the cheerleaders, as our game progresses... backwards.

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