Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kenyan journalist refuses to bow to intimidation

Shadowy figures duck into businesses or scoot around corners when you approach. Later, you hear strange clicks on your phone. Are you paranoid, or is someone really following you and tapping your phone?

Soon thereafter, all doubt is erased when these figures actually emerge from the shadows, and confront you in a direct, intimidating way. They know where you live, they sneer, or worse—they inform you that they know where your child attends school.

While this may sound like a cold-war spy novel, it is, alarmingly, a slice of life for some journalists in Kenya, particularly those covering anything that might make the government uncomfortable. This ranges from routine corruption stories to reports about the proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Kenyan officials and journalists.

One journalist committed to making officials uncomfortable is Robert Wanjala, a freelance reporter based in Eldoret in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Eldoret and the region around it was ground zero for the post-election violence that scarred Kenya in 2007-08, and have been center stage ever since for acts of intimidation against journalists.

Wanjala writes about an increased level of threats and intimidation against the ICC witnesses and any other groups/individuals perceived by this government as its critics --including the press reporting on the issue. He said, “While I have not been directly involved in physical attacks, I have faced numerous indirect threats and intimidations from people well known – government operatives.

“I have shared these concerns with some of my colleagues and they too have expressed similar threats and intimidation in line of their duty. Some have even quit their jobs or sought refuge elsewhere,” he observed.

Wanjala, fearful of government retribution, has made the strategic decision to speak out about his situation in hopes that national and international press coverage will offer him, and his family, some degree of protection from government thugs. He has reached out to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London and the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in the United States in hopes that they will publicize his situation and thus make it more problematic to assault him or his family. 

Wanjala said the harassment against him started last fall. He wrote, “On several occasions, I have been warned by people posing as police officers to stop writing on ICC because it’s not in the interest of the country. Some have told me to look for something better to do before things become worse. 

“This is the situation for me, last October three gentlemen “police officers” as I learned later visited one of my former employer’s office in Eldoret. They wanted to know the whereabouts of   my colleague whom I worked with together in this office prior to the December 2007 general election.
“…In two different occasions last December, two gentlemen approached me while having lunch in downtown restaurants in Eldoret. For 30 minutes, these men interrogated me over my relationship with (an ICC witness)... They also talked to me on whereabouts of my former colleague as well whose interest I write about ICC.

“Early in the same month, two men accosted me in another restaurant in same town and of curious interest they seemed so well informed about my life, where I live and about my family – my wife and two kids including where my daughter schools. That was pretty scaring because to be honest I don’t know these guys – I have never met them and I don’t know what else they know about me!
“…Identified as officials from CID (Criminal Investigation Department) from Nairobi, these gentlemen refused to show me their job IDs but reassured me they were only doing what they were sent to do and I should be grateful that the government is aware of my work. 

“In the same month of December my cell phone began making some irritating noise and when I sought phone technician advice was told there was a possibility it was being monitored security-wise. It cracks with very strange feedback which phone experts say it could be under some sort of surveillance,” Wanjala said. (Note: Wanjala reports that his suspicions about his phone monitoring can’t be confirmed, so it’s possible his phone may not be tapped and that he may just be overly suspicious because of the intimidation directed his way).

The intimidation directed against Wanjala is not unusual in Kenya. The Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org) reports that at least 15 journalists were threatened or attacked in Kenya in 2012, 10 of them in connection with their coverage of corruption-related issues. CPJ research also says that the majority of attacks and threats against the press occurred in small towns, and that about half the attacks took place in Western Kenya (where Wanjala is based). In addition, CPJ reports that “several journalists were threatened or attacked in 2012 in reprisal for their reporting on official corruption,” and that most of these incidents took place in Western Kenya. Finally, CPJ and others widely reported harassment and threats against journalists after the Nairobi mall attack last year.
Given the hostile media climate, and the personal threats, it would be understandable if Wanjala elected to walk away from his job to protect himself and his family. However, he bristles at this notion.

Wanjala said, “While I remain careful in every step I'll be making from now for my family's sake, I refuse to succumb to the government's threats and intimidation whose aim is to silent or frighten me and other journalists working for the common good of the under-represented in the society. Backing off will only emboldens such elements and give them a reason to think they have achieved what they initially wanted - to put fear or scare off any critical voice to (the)  government.”

Alarmed at Wanjala’s email, and concerned about his welfare, I wrote him back immediately. I said, “I am so sorry to hear about your troubles, but very proud of you for your commitment to your readers and to your country. I hope that, given similar circumstances, I would behave as you have. However, it's easy for me to be courageous sitting here (in the U.S.)  without a care in the world.
“My most important advice is this--do what is necessary to take care of yourself and your family. If this means quitting or pausing reporting, then that is what you may need to do. I know this is a drastic step, but it is always an option that should at least remain in the back of your mind. Your safety, and that of your family, comes first,” I wrote.

Wanjala—stubborn, brave, and committed—rejected my advice out of hand. “I think remaining in the profession is the best thing to do, and this has nothing to do with wanting to cut a niche for myself internationally. If death is the ultimate cost to pay for being the voice to the voiceless, the marginalized, those who lost their loved ones following the post-election violence or those killed innocently by police brutality then let it be,” he wrote.

There is no easy or quick solution to the harassment that Wanjala and his colleagues have been enduring. Instead, the best that Western interests can do is to maintain pressure on the Kenyan government to respect and protect all journalists.

To Robert Wanjala and his colleagues under pressure from Kenyan authorities, the Center for Global Peace Journalism, and the international journalism community, offer their unwavering support and commitment to a free, vibrant press in East Africa and around the world.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Year in Review Part II: On Zimmerman, Syria, Kenya 

The second half of 2013 brought more analysis of how peace journalism applies to a wide range of issues and disciplines. 

July began with my take on the mainstream press coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. I wrote, “Whether it’s the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial (1935), the Jody Arias trial, the O.J. Simpson debacle, or the just completed George Zimmerman trial, there’s nothing quite like a courtroom drama to bring out the very worst in America’s press. During the Zimmerman trial, both the extent and tone of the coverage reflect little more than shameful pandering…. Both the tone and extent of the Zimmerman trial coverage represent the antithesis of peace journalism. 

“A peace journalist (and a peace journalism media outlet) would have covered the trial, but not wall-to-wall. We would have sought always to put the trial into the proper perspective—that while tragic, Trayvon Martin is just one of 6,100 U.S. gun victims since the Newtown shootings last December. Peace journalists would have given much less airtime to racial demagogues from both ends of the political spectrum, and instead sought to hear from those who seek a middle ground. Peace journalists would have speculated less, and tried to stick much more to the facts.”

In August, America seemed at the precipice of a war in Syria. I warned of the folly of such a conflict, how we must learn lessons from Iraq. “While the diplomats, generals, and weapons experts debate the veracity of the chemical weapons charges and desirability of military intervention in Syria, the media would be well advised to remember their own missteps leading up the Iraq war 10 years ago. By their own admission, many in the media shirked their watchdog role in the run up to the Iraq war. They were largely content with parroting Bush administration propaganda (lies, some might say). .. So, here we are again 10 years later, an administration vilifying a dictator and accusing him of horrible crimes against his own people. If the media have learned anything from the pre-Iraq debacle, it is that we must never be only the mouthpiece of an administration bent on intervention. We journalists need to be asking questions, and lots of them, seeking independent verification of the claims against Syria. We must be skeptical.

“As a peace journalist, one devoted to explicitly stating the consequences of war and to giving peacemakers a voice, we have an even higher responsibility in times like these. We need to lead a discussion debunking the myth of a “clean, surgical strike”, and examine at length the number of civilian injuries and deaths that could occur. Peace journalists must seek out and give a voice to peacemakers and to those who seek a non-violent response in Syria.”

One month later, I wrote about another hotspot, Kenya after the mall bombing. “As for the coverage of the mall attack, my peace journalism students and I here at Park University are closely scrutinizing how the media are treating the incident. Right now, we have more questions than answers. Among these:

 1. Does coverage inadvertently play into the hands of the attackers? Does it somehow glamorize or legitimize what they have done?
 2. Does sensational coverage make a bad situation worse? (See images from the Sunday front pages of Kenya’s two leading newspapers, The Nation and The Standard).
       3. Are bloody images necessary to tell this story, or are they merely voyeuristic and sensational? Do such images respect the privacy of victims and their loved ones?
       4. Has the coverage in any way hindered officials who are seeking to end the stand-off, and to investigate the attack?”

In November, I looked back at the JFK assassination, and wondered aloud how things might’ve been different if the media in 1963 possessed today’s technology. My students and I discussed this, and “agreed about the vital role of broadcast and print media to help news consumers sort through what would certainly have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, Facebook and blog posts, and images (or purported images) of the event. (If social media existed) in 1963, imagine the rumors, conspiracy theories, and false reports about suspects germinating online. Imagine as well the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the drama of a presidential assassination, and the irresponsible journalism that surely would have occurred under the circumstances.”

Finally, we capped off the year with a robust discussion about the merits of peace journalism. This discussion was ignited by a peace journalism seminar held in Northern Ireland. I responded to several peace journalism naysayers in my blog and on the critics’ blogs. Among other things, I wrote about the critics’ mistaken belief that  “peace journalists openly advocate for peace, which they do not. Peace journalism, instead, seeks to give peacemakers a proportionate voice and to closely scrutinize claims made by those who advocate violence. (Balance and accountability, in the terms of traditional journalism). If both peaceful and violent alternatives are presented to society, and society chooses war, so be it.” 

Peace journalists, I said, have no delusions about necessarily making the world a better place. Instead, “peace journalists would hope that at least he not make the world a worse place—to not exacerbate a bad situation, to not sensationalize an already emotional story, to not deliberately mislead and pander to his “primary audience.”  The title of (one skeptic’s) column, ‘Why I’d still write this even if I know it would provoke a riot,’ speaks volumes about the values of traditional journalism, and the now-antiquated notion that journalists bear no responsibility for the consequences of their reporting.”

As for 2014, an exciting year lies ahead. The Center for Global Peace Journalism and yours truly are organizing seminars in March in Cyprus and October in Haiti. We’re also working on grants that may bring us to Turkey and Lebanon next summer. As always, we’ll have all the details here at Peace Journalism Insights.

Happy New Year!