The reporter puts his hand up in a gesture that is half ‘what are you going to do?’ and half ‘see how obvious my point is?’
“If I write a story that’s critical of Raila, I’m in trouble here,” he says. The 28 correspondents in this conference room chuckle and nod in agreement. “The day the story is in the paper, I can’t sleep in my house.”
I am in Kisumu today, helping to give a workshop today on gender sensitive reporting and human rights. Raila, the chief challenger for the Kenyan presidency, is also in town today. He’s from this part of Kenya, bordered by Lake Victoria.
Although I’m in the midst of giving an hour-long session on human rights and essential journalism skills, I’m really getting a crash course in journalism in rural Kenya. Another correspondent chimes in.
“Raila was in my village a few weeks ago. After the rally, once the procession had started, a bunch of youths stoned his car. Most people weren’t around the car, but I had pictures to prove it. I wrote a story about it that was on the cover of The Nation next day.”
The Nation is one of the two major daily newspapers in Kenya.
“For many days, people were coming up to me, hassling me ‘Hey, bwana, what are you writing this for?’ It’s only because I have a good reputation for telling the truth in my stories that they didn’t beat me.”
This, I tell the group, is my point. By being ethical, fair and balanced in their strories, their readers and listeners will begin to trust what they report.
But the media here in Kenya, despite being more free and fair than the press in many African countries, is still rife with bias. Poverty plays a big part in it.
Most of these correspondents make about 15000 Kenyan shillings a month, according to Oloo Janak, chair of the Kenyan Correspondents Association. That’s about $250 dollars USD: much more than most Kenyans make, but still very little money on which to support a family.
Despite generating 70 percent of the content for the various media houses, correspondents are paid very little. And they are paid by the story. That means, by spending the day here, instead of covering Raila’s visit, they are giving up a chance to make significant money.
Nikki at Journalists for Human Rights told me that most reporters in Africa make most of their money by being paid to attend press conferences. Janak says that doesn’t happen much in Kenya. But across Lake Victoria in Uganda, he says reporters often negotiate the price of press conference attendance and favorable coverage before they leave the office.
Here in Kenya, Janak says, it’s more a case of “the brown envelope.” Many reporters take money from politicians and other wealthy interests, for writing stories that are neither fair nor balanced.
“Kenyans are smart, no?” I say. “People here pay attention to the news; people talk about politics. They know, just like you know when you read the paper, if a reporter is telling you the whole story of not.”
We talk about bias in reporting, how it can creep into what stories we choose to cover, who we decide to interview, how we interview them, and then into the language we use in our stories, columns and scripts.
As we talk, the correspondent are adding examples and suggestions, but they really get excited when I say, “Look, I don’t believe that anyone is objective.”
They all laugh.
“What should you do, say, if your aunt is running for a civic seat in your town?”
“I assign someone else to cover the story,” says one good student.
“Yeah, I assign it to another reporter,” someone else says, “and then I tell him how to write it.”
Everyone laughs again.
Despite the humor and understanding today, as we talk about the essential journalism skills that underpin fair reporting, I know that there are some of these reporters who will accept bribes to write stories with particular slants.
The bribe might not always be as overt as Janak’s “brown envelope”. The reality is, if John is trying to support a family on less than 15000 shillings a month, he can’t afford to pay for his own transportation to interview a political candidate. So he will let the candidate’s driver pick him up and drop him off.
If a business man wants to buy him lunch while they talk about why tea pickers aren’t really all that underpaid, the reporter will listen. As he’s sitting at his desk, putting the story together, he is likely to remember that his full belly is thanks to that business man.
If John chooses to interview someone who says it’s not fair to paying people less than two dollars a day to pick tea for a multinational corporation with a bulging profit margin, the reporter knows that the business man is not likely to take him out for lunch again. He might send thugs to the man’s home. At the very least, the business man will not grant the reporter’s next interview request. And that may mean one less story for the reporter to sell to Nairobi, one less meal on the table.
“But media houses have their own agendas, too,” one correspondent says. “There’s no point in writing a story that goes against their editorial policy.”
Here, not getting your story on the front page doesn’t just mean lower status in the newsroom, it means not eating dinner or not paying your child’s school fees. And if your story is seriously critical, it might mean not making it home for dinner, or not making it home at all. Ever.
It’s not just rural reporters who are threatened with violence.
“You see, in some Nairobi newsrooms, all the computers are networked,” my colleague Arthur tells me. “That means other reporters and editors can sit at their desks and watch as you write your story. They can be deleting as you write. And if they really don’t like what you are writing, or if they are close to a politician, they can just call him and say ‘Hey, so-and-so is writing a bad story about you and the intro goes like this…’ Next thing you know, you have thugs on the phone or at the door, saying you had better change your story, or else.”
I have had people call me to complain about stories. I’ve had people send messages to my boss, complaining about how I covered an issue. But I’ve never been physically threatened.
I don’t have an easy answer for these correspondents. Do what you can. Write as close to the edge as you dare. Be accurate and fair in your reporting. Hope that your reputation will protect you. Hope that as the Kenyan press becomes gradually more free, threats and violence against journalists will become less common.
Because journalists everywhere do have an intimate relationship with human rights. The rights to freedom of expression and association make it possible for us to work in a *relatively* free press. Media are also the vehicle by which other people exercise their rights to free expression and opinion.
They are also the educators for the majority of Kenyans. People here do read the papers. They talk constantly about news and politics. Kenyans eat dinner at eight o’clock, once the evening news program have signed off.
In fact, as I sit writing this in a bar overlooking a darkening Lake Victoria, about 25 people are gathered around a small television. Even the bar tender has abandoned his post to watch reports about recent presidential poll results and Raila’s visit to Western Province.
I know, and hopefully 30 rural correspondents are now reminded, that the more in-depth and accurate those stories are, the more dynamic the civic dialog (human rights and all) will be. And hopefully, the more the Kenyan press develops a reputation for fair reporting, the more likely those correspondents will be to make it home for dinner, with a few more shillings in their pockets.