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How free is the free press? 0

Chaacha Mwita was managing editor of The Standard, Kenya’s second-largest daily newspaper, during the infamous government raid on their radio station in 2006. Thus he was an eye witness to this much-analysed event, some of the particulars of which still remain murky. Chaacha has also written a book about politics and the press in Kenya.

Our interview took place on 25 February 2011 in the Hilton Hotel lobby in Nairobi’s downtown business district. The interview ranged from Kenyan press and political history to a prediction about the role of the press in the upcoming 2012 elections. (‘Citizen Power: A Different Kind of Politics, a Different Kind of Journalism’ (Nairobi: Global Africa Corporation, Citizen Engagement Series, 2009))

THE LEGENDARY HILARY NG’WENO

RON SINGER: I wanted to meet Hilary Ng’weno [now-retired 85-year-old doyen of the Kenyan press corps], but he told me he doesn’t give interviews anymore. Tell me about him.

CHAACHA MWITA: He’s one of those people without whom you cannot understand Kenyan journalism. He founded a newspaper which was then called Nairobi Times. It was subsequently [in 1983] bought by the then-ruling party, KANU (Kenya African National Union). It was renamed Kenya Times. In those days, it was the newspaper to read, not just because it was a high-quality newspaper. If you were a businessman, you had to find advertising and tenders in this paper. If you were a pro-democracy person, you had to read the Kenya Times to gauge what the system was thinking about your activities. And, if you were an ordinary citizen, you had to read it closely. So its great success lay not in its high-quality journalism, but in the fact that, by reading it, you knew the thoughts of the ruling party, and took appropriate measures.

RON SINGER: That was before your time, right?

CHAACHA MWITA: Long before my time. Then, after KANU bought him off, he started the most authoritative weekly.

RON SINGER: The Weekly Review.

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes, it was quite an undertaking. It didn’t pander along political-party lines, exactly, but once in a while it came under heavy criticism from the party.

RON SINGER: In other words, it tried to play it both ways?

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. It’s sad that The Weekly Review folded. The Nation Media Group bought the title, but they’ve never revived it. I guess they bought it to keep it from falling into the hands of potential rivals.

RON SINGER: I’ve read the current weekly, East Africa. Is that a successor, in a sense?

CHAACHA MWITA: Absolutely not.

RON SINGER: That seems like it covers news, has stories of interest.

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes, news, human interest, a bit of art. And its focus is East Africa. Weekly Review covered politics.

RON SINGER: Not the same kind of paper, at all.

THE KENYAN PRESS: 2006–08

CHAACHA MWITA: I no longer do journalism. But I wrote political journalism… You know what happened after the 2007 election [the ethnic violence]?

RON SINGER: I do.

CHAACHA MWITA: I was sort of troubled by that. In 2007–08, I researched and wrote a book about the problems of Kenyan journalism, and where it has to go to serve democracy.

[Since November 2009, Chaacha was worked for an international NGO, doing research on health issues and advocacy to the Kenyan and other African governments.]

RON SINGER: Does that mean you’re dealing with the government a lot?

CHAACHA MWITA: A lot – and not just the government of Kenya. We have a presence in 18 African countries.

RON SINGER: I’ve heard and read a lot about the press’s role in the 2007 elections and the ethnic massacres that followed. To me, their performance was sometimes okay, but often problematic. I know that The Nation had the policy of not naming the ethnic groups of those who committed acts of violence, and that some people have criticised them for that. I don’t know if the papers could have saved the situation once it had started. What do you think? Was there culpability by the papers in the way it all started?

CHAACHA MWITA: After the violence broke out, the papers realised this was a serious situation and they had to do something to try to return the country to peace and sobriety. But, before that, the papers were not behaving in a responsible manner. They took sides, especially in the releasing of election results. In the two previous elections, the 2002 election and the referendum of 2005, the media houses had their own reporters at every polling station, and they released full results as soon as they were announced. There was no problem. They were watchdogs, agents against rigging.

RON SINGER: That’s what they should do.

CHAACHA MWITA: But, come 2007, for some reason, the situation had changed. The media houses stopped publishing election results from different parts of the country. The Nation Media Group, the largest in East and Central Africa, had bought a state-of-the-art system to cover that election. They claimed that the system failed. But, even if that was true, the journalists on the ground had tape recorders, cameras, computers, etc.

RON SINGER: They always have back-up.

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. That situation could have been saved. One of the reasons violence broke out in some parts of the country was that there was this long period when people didn’t know who had won. They suspected that something underhanded was taking place.

RON SINGER: Out comes rumour.

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. The press did not help. Until today, they have not acquitted themselves of the role they played.

RON SINGER: Was The Standard the same?

CHAACHA MWITA: The Standard was surrounded by the government, and they put their TV station on auto-pilot, running old soaps, and stopped talking about the election for close to four hours before they had the courage to come back. A lot of pressure was put on them.

RON SINGER: When was the raid on the radio station?

CHAACHA MWITA: That was much earlier, before the election. I was at The Standard at that time. I was managing editor. They came and arrested me.

RON SINGER: What was the name of the guy who did that?

CHAACHA MWITA: Of course, Michuki.

[Then internal security minister, John Michuki is now environmental minister.]

RON SINGER: Why did he do it?

CHAACHA MWITA: He said the station was planning to disrupt national security.

RON SINGER: ‘Planning…’?

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes.

RON SINGER: Why did they really do it?

CHAACHA MWITA: As far as Chaacha Mwita is concerned, they did it to intimidate the press. They had no evidence for the alleged reason. As a matter of fact, at that time, the newspaper was carrying examination results. Everyone who has lived in this country knows that when exam results come out, they dominate the coverage of the next day. No journalist wants his paper to carry any other story. There is no reason that can convince me that they raided it in the interest of the nation.

RON SINGER: Wasn’t it anomalous? They didn’t do things like that, I thought. What was going on? How high up did it go?

CHAACHA MWITA: I can tell you that we were not mincing our words about how the democratic experiment [brought in by President Mwai Kibaki in 2002 after the Moi tyranny collapsed] was failing. Our coverage of the government was hard-hitting.

RON SINGER: That’s what woke the rattlesnake.

[It was John Michuki who made the notorious comment that, if one rattled a snake, they had to be prepared to be bitten.]

CHAACHA MWITA: They thought, if we don’t crack down, if we allow things to go the way they are going, we will not be able to get away with anything.

RON SINGER: We won’t be able to rig the election if we need to.

CHAACHA MWITA: After the raid, fortunately, the country came together. The Nation supported us, and even KBC, the government station, joined in and criticised the raid. But subsequently they threatened to repeat this. At a public rally, Michuki said, ‘I will do the same again.’

RON SINGER: I’ve heard that Michuki’s big achievement is the law mandating seatbelts in matatus [public taxi vans]. Except no one wears them.

CHAACHA MWITA: In the absence of journalistic resources, I cannot answer important questions such as ‘Who supplied the seat belts?’

RON SINGER: Was there ethnic partisanship in the press coverage of 2007–08?

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. When you look at the media structure at that time, at the Nation, for example, most of the editors and managers were from one group.

RON SINGER: The Kikuyu [Kibaki’s group].

CHAACHA MWITA: I know those people personally. Some of them are my friends. So it’s difficult for me to say some things, but I must say them. You have to make a distinction between intellectual honesty and friendship.

RON SINGER: A terrible choice. Imagine if I thought my daughter was a crook. Thank God she’s not!

CHAACHA MWITA: Exactly. So the paper’s articles were obviously favourable to the president and critical of Raila [Odinga, a Luo, Kibaki’s opponent, and currently his partner in government under a power-sharing agreement].

RON SINGER: Was The Standard also partisan? I know you’re a Standard man, so I have to ask you that.

CHAACHA MWITA: By that time, I had left The Standard, so I can tell you. If it was partisan, it was to a lesser extent. A couple of studies have been done of media performance at that time, and The Standard scores better.

My own research, however, suggests that both papers did badly, with little difference.

[‘The Role of the Media in Conflict’, (Radio media and others), http://www.internews.org/…/LiteratureReview_ReportingPeaceKenya_20090415.pdf]

2011–12: A PREDICTION

RON SINGER: With the new constitution in place, and the 2012 elections looming, do you anticipate that the press will have been chastised, and will play a more positive role? More like pre-2007?

CHAACHA MWITA: I think the press has learned its lesson. I’m not saying they will not revert to all those challenges and mistakes of 2007. But, especially between the advent of the coalition government [in 2008] and now, they are a bit more careful. One of the best examples is their coverage during the last three weeks of the judicial appointments issue [a failed extra-legal attempt to subvert International Criminal Court proceedings against government higher-ups allegedly involved in the 2007–08 violence]. The media came out quickly and unanimously to say that the spirit and letter of the law should be followed. Before 2007, at least one journalist would have come out saying the president was following the law, he was not wrong. At the very worst, the press withheld their position until the legal issue was clarified.

RON SINGER: Would you say the press was the leading reason Kibaki was forced to retreat?

CHAACHA MWITA: Absolutely not!

RON SINGER: Parliament was, wasn’t it?

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. And the press followed. But let’s be fair to the press. They were not on the president’s side, even though they were not necessarily on the people’s side.

RON SINGER: But, if the move hadn’t been so unpopular, they might have been less noisy about it.

CHAACHA MWITA: Yes. They could have come out with a summary of the relevant law before the speaker stated it. It wasn’t a mystery; the constitution was there. And the papers have the capacity to hire the best lawyers in the country. But I’m happy they did as well as they did.

RON SINGER: I’m sure you know that, for all its problems, Kenya is a beacon for journalists from the whole region.

CHAACHA MWITA: I think our standards are very high. When you step out of Kenya and go to other countries, you get the feeling that we are doing well. But the moment we step back … we cannot allow abuses to happen in this country. Those guys want to work here, but we have genuine concerns about the way we are being governed, and about our media practices and where this country ought to be. If all these things were brought right, where could we be today?

RON SINGER: Without corruption, the development would be so much better. But don’t worry, Nigeria is still way ahead in the Premier League Corruption tables. The Manchester United of corruption. Anything else?

CHAACHA MWITA: No. But look at my book carefully. If anything springs to mind, shoot me an email.

RON SINGER: If I had said before this trip, ‘I wish there was one book I could read about this topic…’ I’ll send you a copy of mine when it comes out too.

CHAACHA MWITA: I’ll remind you.

RON SINGER: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure.

CHAACHA MWITA: Thank you.

By Ron Singer –  Pambazuka News.

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