When the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships was established 28 years ago, the government in Kenya was not the sort that encouraged newspapers to publish whatever they wanted.
There was only one broadcaster, and this state-owned and controlled, so either the TV at home was off or tuned to the national broadcaster, and that was in the habit of giving a detailed account of the president’s day as its chief news item.
Today there are four established national newspapers, numerous magazines, five television stations with day and night news programmes and more than 30 FM stations.There is virtually no limit on what journalists can write about and Kenya is now said by The Huffington Post to be at the centre of one of the busiest new markets for global channels.
But is the media free?
Many observers of the press in Kenya have been quick to mention the raid on the offices of the Standard Group in 2006 whenever we discuss the extent to which journalists in my country have freedom.
The raid featured masked men storming into the newsroom of The Standard newspaper and KTN, a TV station, carting away equipment and smashing computers. They also forced the TV station to go off air, harassed employees and generally did the kind of stuff you would expect from goons out to make a scary impression. At the newspaper’s press, they made a bonfire out of the papers due the following day. There was naturally a furore about that. It didn’t help that the minister involved told reporters the media house had rattled a snake, which had naturally bitten it.
It’s fitting and proper to mention that rare incident because it provides a perfect backdrop against which we can see the ability of the press in Kenya to bounce back.
Last month, two journalists from the Standard Group produced a series of TV features about a bunch of foreigners who were involved in that raid and the connections in government and with drug barons that made all that possible.
It is instructive to note that apart from a feeble statement of denial from the Kenyan police, Mohammed Ali and Dennis Onsarigo have remained free – there was an apparent attempt to prosecute Ali over a stolen phone but that is minor.
There exist no guarantees but there is little chance a similar raid can happen in the light of the new Constitution with its wholesome Bill of Rights.
Still, there are limits and ongoing debates related to hate speech, libel and slander and continuous attempts to gag the press via statutes.
Kenya’s press can be said to be free. Covering Parliament, we get access to all manner of documents, can attend and report about an overwhelming number of meetings and often get the chance to ask policy-makers questions.
But judging from what I have observed at The Kansas City Star, we could still take this freedom further.
Take the case of Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Representative. One of the reporters at The Star picked up a report in April that the representative guaranteed a loan that his business is unable to pay.
It naturally took a lot of calls (and a fair amount of expletives on those calls) to get the story out and to put the man on the spot for this $1.3 million that the taxpayer would eventually have been forced to pay.
The reporter was able to get the information because of the ease of access to government records. He certainly did not have to harass a clerk at the state headquarters to get it.
In another recent case, when the county medical examiner refused to comment on a case, the information was obtained via a Missouri Open Records request.
Last year, when Olympics marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru died, the Government Pathologist allowed the media to watch when he visited the scene as part of his investigations.
But it was virtually impossible to get him to speak about the matter on the record. Without any legal tools to compel him to even produce the report on Wanjiru’s cause of death, we often found we were running up against a wall on the story.
It is just one case where a press that is free finds soft shackles exist in the form of public servants who simply refuse to talk or provide documents that are not in any way secret or matters of security.
There have indeed been credible suggestions that the necessary legal tool would be in the form of a statute on Freedom of Information. It would be handy to compel government and other public bodies to release information that is due to citizens.
That, so far, seems to be the way to expand the freedom the press so rightly enjoys.
The last two weeks have been mostly been spent working on a story about a cowboy. Daryl Levings, the editor in the Features Section, was of the idea that the story should be told with snippets of the writer’s point of view.
It is about a cowboy who has been a sort of guardian for some five kids from his neighbourhood by training them on caring for horses and eventually on team roping.
That story was partly the reason my stay at Features was lengthened by a week. It should be published in a week or so.
It mainly taught me there are many ways to tell a story and there are therefore many ways to write a feature.
There was also another about mountain lions, otherwise known as cougars or pumas, that have been travelling up to 1,000 miles to get to Missuori. Although the reporting for this was entirely on phone and online, the responses have been interesting.
“I know I was not going mad the other day when I saw a mountain lion near the lake at Raytown last weekend,” he said in a voicemail message. “I thought I had seen a large dog but after looking at the picture in your story, I know what I saw was a mountain lion.”