The New York Times on Kenya: working through my reaction to the mess they have made on the photograph of terror victims at a time of grief

1. I cannot and have not defended New York Times’ use of the particular photograph of victims that has angered Kenyans.

Using that photo, especially while the attack was ongoing, was bad judgment in a number of respects that have been well explained by others.

2. My personal inclination from my own circumstances is usually to be somewhat defensive of the Times when they get attacked . . .

. . . as they frequently do, not because they are not regularly frustrating and imperfect but because they have been and continue to be a critical part of the wider media firmament in the United States. And newspaper journalism in the United States is suffering to our detriment and all professional news reporting is contested in our Trump era. (More about this later).

3. But, apologies are easy.

I understand that if the Times turned over editorial judgment to social media responders they would quickly be lost in the internet sea and cease to exist or be snatched up by a hedge fund and/or an ideologically motivated billionaire and/or have to publish listicles and soft porn to survive. Likewise they can never willingly let themselves be bullied by authoritarian governments so the grandstanding demands and threats from the Media Council of Kenya make the situation harder to address constructively and are not in well considered good faith in my opinion.  But apologies are still easy. (And surely taking down or swapping out the one photograph would be a “correction” not some actual editorial diversion.)

4. Thus, I come around to seeing and feeling a humility and empathy problem.

Especially as time has gone by. The Times is not the Daily Mail nor The Sun and does not deserve to be the poster child for historical imperialism/colonialism devaluing black and brown bodies even if it has its own limitations and faults. But the Times made a mistake here and it was unforced and not anyone else’s fault. The tone deaf lack of responsiveness makes me more appreciative of the perspectives that I have picked up from friends in academia and journalism and other fields over the years that are more critical of the Times.

5. The individual reporter did nothing substantively professionally wrong.

The complaint is with the photo placed by the editors in New York not with the reporter’s story. The photo was by a Kenyan photographer through the Associated Press. So it is simply not her fault. In the moment of anguish with the attack it seems that she received a lot of the grief associated with this situation which was not her doing or in control. Having arrived at an understanding of the facts, there is apparently still a broad sentiment among many Kenyans, including many that I admire and respect, to deport her for being insensitive and seemingly a bit flip in responding. In other words, to me more of a moral question as to whether we think from Twitter that she has the personal traits we approve of as opposed to her actual writing.

Keep in mind that she is a corporate employee presumably. Without knowing the details of her individual situation with the Times, in general terms most American employees are subject to being fired at will, for any reason or no reason, without any legal right to severance as in Kenya, much less “due process”. I am a corporate lawyer [my experience in the world of Kenyan media and politics (and especially the New York Times) that has been the basis for this blog was “on leave” from that corporate career] so I know something about how things work. For a remote employee to say unilaterally to the public on social media that her bosses back in New York screwed up something that is in their job description and discretion and not hers is problematic.

The reporter/correspondent is supposed to say “I am sorry but I personally think my bosses have made a terrible mistake with the company product back in New York”? I do not know what I would have done in her shoes, and I can sit back at home and imagine doing better but realistically she was in a losing position.

I had a slightly analogous situation as an NGO employee in Kenya when my bosses back in Washington put out a press statement that the exit poll I supervised in the 2007 election showing an opposition win was “invalid”. I was in a lose/lose situation on my own in Nairobi. My threading of the needle in dealing with that situation has never been fully satisfactory to anyone so far as I know but not fully “toeing the line” has been life changing in some respects. I objected strenuously in private. In public when I was pressed by a reporter for Nairobi’s Star on whether the statement from Washington “reflected my personal opinion” I explained that “it was’t intended to reflect my personal opinion”–no surprise that the reporting when it hit the paper was that I had said that it “did not reflect” my own opinion. When it was faxed to Washington the president of my organization “hit the roof” per a phone call from my boss who had heard it from him. After I explained the exact choice of words, she ran interference for me and got him “calmed down” on the basis that I had been “misquoted”. Of course I knew when the reporter called me that I was likely to get get fired for diverging from my superiors and I did not have an opportunity to go ask my wife and kids.

I did some things privately during the interval to keep the exit poll from “going away” before it was ultimately released publicly in July but that was closely held and I have never written about that part of the story yet.

It was only post-employment that I felt that I could publicly express my own opinions related to my work.  Ultimately I was quoted from published interviews in The Nation magazine and The New York Times itself (and written about by Kenyan media and and The Weekly Standard and RedState.com without being contaced or interviewed).

Fortunately, my temporary duty in NGO-world was ending in a few weeks anyway. My law job was waiting for me at home. I decided not to resign to keep the office together and I did not get fired. But I was on a short leash until my return to the States and I avoided being out and about or meeting politicians so I would not have to be chose between being openly insubordinate or dishonest. I am grateful that I had some room to maneuver in that pre-social media era.

7. Where do my Kenyan friends want this to end up?

Is “the Kenya we want” one in which foreign reporters for foreign newspapers get deported because they are perceived to be insensitive on social media? What are the ramifications of that? Just reporters? Etc.

Remember that the Times of London correspondent was detained at the airport and expelled by all appearances because he was investigating the Eurobond mysteries. No one filled those shoes. You are still on the hook for the debt and it turns out there seems to have been a secret problem with the SGR financing from 2014 that you are just reading about now.

This deserves to be reflected on and discussed–perhaps mediated–offline and in person, with a little space from the anguish of this attack, and this photo.

6. The peak of this for me is someone on Twitter who wanted to deport the photographer.

Fortunately the Courts in Kenya have now clearly and explicitly ruled against the Executive Branch’s power to deport a Kenyan in the Miguna Miguna cases. We all know the application of the law to the actions of Executive Branch is difficult and often contested as a matter of power rather than right–here in the United States also–so I think Kenyans would be wise to think carefully on this.

A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret US Exit Poll in New York Times

Great Kenya reading while we are waiting for politicians to do the right thing

The tribalization of Kenyan politics has been unusually opened up for all to hear and see of late, as here in the US and in the UK we experience new traumas inflicted by individuals seemingly acting out of some overtorqued ideological angst.

At least there are no excuses for any further hate speech by anyone as we are all confronted with the stakes.

So, in the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on with learning, sharing and discussing, I commend to you Oowah’s new work-in-progress curation of “Roughly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Kenyan Journalism.”

Podesta Group lobbies Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, Roll Call, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Financial Times, Reuters, Washington Diplomat for Kenyatta Gov’t

Kenyan taxpayers paid The Podesta Group of Washington, DC for public relations/lobbying contacts with these media outlets on behalf of their Government in the first half of 2015.  The Podesta Group provided similar or related lobbying services at the same time for the governments of Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Iraq, India, and Vietnam, among various others, aside from their nongovernmental clients.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything wrong with the Government of Kenya spending tax dollars on working media contacts when it isn’t paying teacher’s salaries or meeting basic human needs in health care, for instance.  After all, the United States and various multinational and other foreign donors can be counted on to spend their taxpayer dollars to help ameliorate the consequences of this choice by the Government of Kenya.

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U.S. press coverage of Garissa University massacre

The Big Picture: Attack in Kenya” photographs in The Boston Globe.

Kenya attack targets Christians, putting new pressure on religious leaders” Ariel Zirulnick in the Christian Science Monitor.

Kenya faces grim aftermath of school massacre” Abagail Higgins and Jessica Hatcher in the Washington Post.

Kenyan religious leaders urge unity after Shabab Muslim extremists slaughter Christian students  Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles Times.

Christians warned, then killed in Kenyan university massacre” Margot Kiser in The Daily Beast.

“University attacks marks Al Shabaab’s pivot to ISIS” Ashish Kumar Sen interview with Bronwyn Bruton in New Atlanticist.

Kenya mourns 148 dead in university attack by militants”  Christopher Torchia and Tom Odula for Associated Press.

3850455481_f0db94e43c_bKenyans agonize over student massacre” Martina Stevis in The Wall Street Journal.

Egypt update . . .

Cairo at Egypt Constitutional Referendum 2014

Cairo at Egypt Constitutional Referendum 2014

“Egypt’s constitutional referendum has solved nothing” by Sharif Nashashibi, March 31 at Al Arabiya:

.  .  .  .

Democracy International, which according to the Financial Times “fielded the most robust international monitoring operation,” expressed “serious concerns” about the political environment preceding the latest vote. “There was no real opportunity… to dissent,” said the Washington-based consultancy. “This constrained campaign environment made a robust debate on the substance and merits of the constitution impossible.”

Transparency International, which also sent observers for the referendum, condemned “repression by state authorities” prior to the vote. The government “harassed, arrested, and prosecuted peaceful critics, closing democratic space to promote views and debate before the referendum,” said the Berlin-based anti-corruption organization.

The U.S.-based Carter Center, which observed the previous constitutional vote, said it was “deeply concerned” by the “narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum.” It said it would not field observers this time because “the late release of regulations for accreditation of witnesses” meant that the Center would be unable to do its job properly.

The result was “the least free and fair of the five national referendums and elections held since Egypt’s military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power by mass protests in February 2011,” wrote Christian Science Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy. For all Mursi’s faults – and he had many – at least there was a vigorous campaign against his constitution, by opposition groups that were not outlawed.

.  .  .  .

Just as Mursi’s constitution exacerbated national divisions while promising the opposite, the same is true of its replacement. It has simply entrenched the idea of three increasingly irreconcilable Egypts: that which supports Sisi and the military, that which backs Mursi and the Brotherhood, and that which opposes both.

This process will continue with the almost-certain scenario of a military figure (Sisi) as the next president, and an ever-widening clampdown on dissent. Mubarak must be getting a strong and satisfying sense of deja vu.

Crucially, there is no sign that approval of this new constitution has made, or will make, any positive difference to the country’s myriad and chronic problems. If anything, deadly violence is worsening, wholesale disenfranchisement is becoming more entrenched, human rights are being trampled on by a fully resurgent police state, and the economy remains on life support.

.  .  .  .

In the meantime, Al Jazeera East Africa correspondent Peter Greste and his colleagues continue to languish in jail after another inconsequential appearance in court as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation News:

.  .  .  .

It was Greste’s fourth appearance in court, after more than 90 days in prison, and in an unusual move he was allowed to directly approach the judge and tell him why he should be freed.

In words translated for the judge, Greste said that he had only been in Egypt for two weeks before his arrest and he had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood.

He also said that he had committed no crimes of violence, had no criminal record, and that he posed no threat to the people or state of Egypt.

Greste told the court his only desire was to continue the fight to clear his name.

Fellow defendant Mohamed Fahmy pointed out that Greste is a Christian, making any alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood unusual.

Fahmy also argued that because he himself drinks alcohol, he would not be a member of the Brotherhood.

Three so-called technical experts who presented to the court were supposed to look at Greste’s stories and rule on whether they were biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood and whether they were seeking to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.

However, that did not happen because there were no facilities for it in the court.

.  .  .  .

In the environment of the repression by the interim government and the military itself, the Egyptian judiciary’s performance in handing down a perfunctory mass death sentence last week and otherwise failing to offer a pretense of due process to other detainees like the Al Jazeera journalists makes it hard to have confidence in their independence in overseeing a May 25-26 presidential election in which Sisi has now announced his candidacy.

Let me recommend a good earlier piece by Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian of the Atlantic Council on the council’s Egypt Source blog, “Reflections on a Referendum.” I enjoyed getting acquainted with them in observing the referendum and they did a good job here of capturing the atmosphere at the January vote.

“Do not be afraid. The government will protect you.” KANU Revivalists offer alternative to democratic values in Kenya

Shortly after I arrived in Kenya in mid-2007, Kenya’s parliament passed a media regulation bill which faced a storm of international diplomatic criticism as well as domestic protest.

President Kibaki at the time backed down and sent the bill back to Parliament where it was ultimately somewhat watered down. New legislation passed last week goes much further than what was dared under the first Kibaki Administration, in spite of the new constitution. This time there doesn’t seem to be much reaction from international governments–we give our aid money quietly and tiptoe so as not to step on important toes since we have been aggressively accused of imperialism and racism for not intervening to stop the ICC prosecutions of The Now Elected for the mayhem after the 2007 election–but the international media is much more aware of these issues than they were in 2007.

And if the media bill has been put in some limbo, it has been followed by the introduction of the Jubilee bill to assert more state control over civil society and restrict and channel foreign funding to non-governmental organizations. The Uhuruto team had not shown its cards on attacking the media during the election campaign, but civil society was always a known target. See Attacks on Kenyan Civil Society prefigured in Jubilee Manifesto, my post from March this year.  More freedom for the media and for civil society means more restraints on politicians in control of government.  Restricting civil society can help maximize the opportunity to control the media, and vice versa.

Kenyans are confronted once again by the hard choice of whether they are willing to challenge their “leaders” in governmental power to maintain their individual freedoms as citizens.

Uhuru Kenyatta stayed with KANU throughout his life through the formation of TNA as a vehicle for his presidential campaign in this year’s race.  Other than running in elections himself, he has not given much indication over the years that I am aware of being concerned for opening the democratic space and by running as “Moi’s Project” as the KANU nominee in 2002 he chose the old banner.  Of course when you are one of the richest men in Africa, and your mother is one of the richest women, because of what your father took for himself and his family when he was the one-party ruler, you find yourself with plenty of freedom of speech and freedom to politically organize regardless of the details of the system that confront the small people.

In the wake of the Westgate attack, and the desire of the government to avoid scrutiny or challenge, I am reminded poignantly of what Kibaki said when he first ventured out thirteen days after he had himself sworn in for his second term:

January 9, 2008–13 days after the 2007 election (NBC News):

Kibaki made his first trip to a trouble spot, addressing more than 1,000 refugees in western Kenya, many of whom had fled blazing homes, pursued by rock-throwing mobs wielding machetes and bows and arrows.
“Do not be afraid. The government will protect you. Nobody is going to be chased from where they live,” Kibaki said at a school transformed into a camp for the displaced in the corn-farming community of Burnt Forest. “Those who have been inciting people and brought this mayhem will be brought to justice.”
He indicated he would not consider demands for a new election or vote recount.
The election “is finished, and anybody who thinks they can turn it around should know that it’s not possible and it will never be possible,” he said.

Perhaps for those Kenyans that feel sure that the government will always protect them, there is no need for these things of a free media, civil society, the questioning of elections.  Kenya could just go back to the Chinese model of the one party state.  Kenyans who prefer a freer, more empowered citizenship as a matter of values, or who don’t feel they can count on the government to always protect them will have to decide to engage to protect those rights which are of course expressed in law in the new constitution.  See “CIC (Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution) says new media law unconstitutional”, Daily Nation.

Kenyan Media

Kenyan Media

To avoid confusion about the Kenyan ELOG “Parallel Vote Tabulation” . . .

Quote

Freeandfair Kenya on March 11, 2013 at 11:14 am said:

The most publicly available check on the elections — the Parallel Vote Tabulation done by ELOG did everyone a disservice by saying their results were “consistent” with the IEBC’s. This makes it sound as if it supported the IEBC’s count. It does nothing of the kind. See http://www.ndi.org/files/Kenya-ELOG-PVT-statement-030913.pdf. Not only do they find that Uhuru received 49.7% of the vote, they have a margin of error of 2.7%. This means that MOST of their prediction is for a RUNOFF. A tragic, incorrect, and unprofessional use of terms.

This was a comment in response to my post “Overall Observation on the Observations”–this is important and apparently there has been some confusion.

Western storytelling, the East African “middle class” and how to account for “politics”

Here we have an interesting paradigmatic story from Der Spiegel, translated from German for their English version, “Up and Coming in Kampala; Africa’s Growing Middle Class Drives Development” by Horand Knaup and Jan Puhl:

Three good anecdotal stories here of successful start-up African businesses generating local jobs and wealth through import substitution with domestic production. They help to grow a domestic consumer market and ultimately look to export as well. One of the two in Uganda got significant assistance from the national government and the Kenyan business got financing from a German international development arm.

She earned her starting capital by importing clothes from the West, but then she began designing her own collections, and soon “Sylvia Owori” was the most popular label among women in East Africa.

Owori has her collection produced by seamstresses in villages. She has trained 200 women and sponsors the purchase of their sewing machines. “When I receive a big order, I can deliver quickly and flexibly,” she says. On the other hand, she says, the women can stand on their own feet when she doesn’t happen to have any work for them.

Her latest creation is a denim laptop bag shaped like the map of Africa. “This bag was once a pair of jeans,” she says. “You threw it into a container for old clothing and sent it to Africa. We made something new out of it and will sell it back to you.” Swedish fashion giant H&M is interested in the bag, and two other Western fashion chains have asked Owori to meet with them in London.

It’s a question of finding new ways to stimulate economic growth. The corrupt oligarchies in many African countries have made money from the export of commodities, but only a fraction of the population has benefited from the proceeds. The growth being generated by Africa’s middle class is more sustainable, say development experts. Much of it is based on the processing of African fabrics, wood and fruits, and it creates jobs.

Good examples of what is going right and working, from two of Africa’s 50+ plus countries. Well done as such.

“She is the epitome of a success story. And success stories are no longer a rarity in Africa, despite its reputation as a continent of poverty and suffering.” Right and important.

But then we get into the broad assertions and big selective extrapolations. “This growth is producing a middle class that’s growing from year to year. According to the African Development Bank, this middle class already includes 313 million people, or 34 percent of the total population.” To say that “this middle class” includes roughly a third of the population of the entire continent is to me quite misleading in the context of this story,

Continue reading

Upcoming: Panel on challenges to independent media in East Africa

For readers in the Washington area, Tuesday morning from 10:00 – 11:30am, the Center for International Media Assistance, the National Endowment for Democracy Africa Program and the Solidarity Center will be hosting a roundtable discussion entitled “Independent Media in East Africa: Democratic Pillar in Peril?”  Looks like an interesting event with a distinguished panel:

New challenges to independent media are emerging in East Africa. Recently passed anti-terrorism and information laws allow governments to harass and imprison journalists with impunity. Under these new laws, six journalists have been arrested in Ethiopia since June 2011, and Somali journalists are facing tremendous threats covering conflict and famine in their country. How do local media react when their fellow journalists come under attack? How can an independent press play its crucial role as a pillar of democracy and overcome challenges in places such as Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya? The discussion will also examine the development of unions and media associations as well as the international donor community’s role in supporting independent media in East Africa.

Information and registration here.

A Closer Look at Journalism and NGOs

Karen Rothmyer has a “terrific and necessary” piece in the Columbia Journalism Review headlined “Hiding the Real Africa; why NGOs prefer bad news” about stereotyped images of Africans in poverty in the U.S. media and the influence of NGOs working on aid projects on this coverage (with comments from Jina Moore and I so far).  Linked is the full research paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Also at CJR is a review of Rebecca Hamilton’s Fighting for DarfurPublic Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide.

In The Star Andrea Bohnstedt explains that “Kibera Slum is Now the face of Kenya Abroad.”

In “Good News is No News, and that’s Bad News”, Terrance Wood writes at the Development Policy Blog that the media cover aid failures and problems, rather than success stories, and that this gives a misleadingly negative impression about the effectiveness of aid.

“Social media and the Uganda election 2011”