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

Election Violence threat in Kenya — my thoughts on NDI’s new warning 


1. NDI is right to warn of a risk of violence, highlighting the unprecedented level of division and tension in Kenya related to the competition for power in this election scheduled for August.

2.  Given that the Kenyan Government is led by politicians widely understood to have been major players in the killing and mayhem following the failure of the 2007 election — elevated to office on the basis of their status as tribal champions indicted by the ICC — #1 can hardly be any surprise.

3.  Further, the “reform agenda” intended to address the catastrophe of 2007-08 has long been diverted and shelved.  Zero accountability across the board for the previous election violence.  The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report was interfered with by the Executive, then shelved with so many other accumulated Kenyan commission reports gathering dust.  No accountability for the bribery of Election Commission members and officers in 2007 (in fact, a cover up), followed by impunity in the buyout of the IEBC last year after Chickengate and the failures of 2013.

4.  The main reform was the passage of the new Constitution of 2010, but in the hands of anti-reform politicians under no serious further international pressure, the main change is more offices to potentially fight over.  There has been some strengthening of some institutions and backsliding in others.  I think everyone agrees there is still widespread extrajudicial killing by police (the biggest cause of death in the PEV) and extensive corruption (which facilitated the collapse of the ECK).

5.  Certainly the performance of the KDF as well from Westgate to Somalia suggests a less disciplined force than most of us perceived in the 2007 and 2013 elections.

6.  Arguably the incumbent Kenyan Administration has more leverage over the US and UK governments now than Kibaki did in 2007.  Although in 2007 Kenya was a key security cooperator with the US on Al Shabaab, at this point the KDF is in Somalia on an indefinite basis, in part as a component of AMISOM in which the US and the UK are heavily invested, with the US now stepping up direct action against Al Shabaab.  In the meantime, South Sudan — the other “nation-building” project with its back office in Nairobi —  is really failing.  Conflict threatens in the DR Congo with Uganda and Rwanda pulling away from democratization progess as the potential threats and temptations may be increasing in the neighborhood.  Obviously it would be hard for the US or the UK, as well as for others, to “cry foul” over a situation like 2007 where the incumbent was not willing to be found to have lost re-election.

7.  It’s too early to know what the dynamics of the campaign will be and I am not closely in touch at all with the hidden backstories this time (like most outsiders, especially those not even living in Kenya this year).  It seems foolish for any of us to gamble much on prognostications or predictions, but the macro risk is surely great enough to warrant some soul searching and some planning.  Part of this is sobriety in recognizing that there is no time left for extensive reconciliation efforts or deeper institutional work that has eluded us over the years.

8.  Boris Johnson will have Kenya on his radar, for better or worse, but it’s hard to guess who outside of AFRICOM will really be engaged on Kenya at a senior level in the US Government before any election crisis, even though the risk is so much more widely recognized this time.  Pre-election funding is much greater than in 2007 but extra resources for a political crisis may be harder to rally.

9.  I remain of the belief that Kenya was not really “on the brink of civil war” in 2008 because such a large part of the violence was instrumental for political gain and none of the politicians would have benefited from a civil war.  In 2013, I agree that some level of optimism about institutions, mostly the Supreme Court, that we don’t necessarily see now had a lot to do with reducing violence, but a big factor was the mass security mobilization – it was understood that protestors would face police and military bullets and not many were willing to take an initiative in that direction.  The benefit of 2013 and the other problems with the institutions pre-election this year is that expectations are low — an openly stolen election would be far less of a shock than in 2007 and as in 2013 the State’s willingness to kill cannot be doubted.  On the other hand, if violence did break out inspite of these initial barriers it might be harder to temper and eventually end than in 2008.

Update: 13 April — See Muthoni Wanyeki’s latest column in The East African, Polls: the heat is rising, mayhem escalating,” for a look at the current temperature official behavior around the country.

 

Periodically, Westerners are reminded of the brutality and politicization of Kenya’s paramilitary police [updated 18 May]

But there is not much new under the gun in Kenyatta’s Kenya.  

Three years ago, Kenya’s Supreme Court noted the appearance of corruption in Kenya’s election commission and directed investigation and possible prosecution.  No action eventually led to protests which are being brutally suppressed as we speak because the incumbent regime is apparently very afraid of reform, and is reacting just as it has in the past, and each of its predecessors has.

We have no right whatsoever to claim to be surprised.

Update 17 May: Bernard Ngatia, who was shown on video being mercilessly beaten by police, died from the injuries.  Update 18 May: Unsurprisingly there is a lot of murk now about the details of the beating victim from the video and whether he did or didn’t die. We can hope the media will clarify; the same issue of a pattern and practice of police brutality to squelch political dissent confronts us as we hope that thisvictim survived.

From today’s statement from free expression supporters Article 19:

ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns yesterday’s killing of a protestor by police, and injury of others who had joined the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) politicians calling for the removal of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

ARTICLE 19 urges the police to respect Article 37 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate, picket, and present petitions to public authorities, as well as its obligations under international human rights law.

What’s Going on in the Tana River Delta? [updated]

You know things are getting more on edge politically in Kenya as the media becomes more prone to euphemism and indirect language in writing about the stakes and the players in pre-election conflict.

The VOA today offers more clarity on the political interests in the most conspicuous current fight and “calls out” the presence of uniformed ethnic militia:

Though people on both sides have been killed, the majority of victims during the most recent violence have been Orma pastoralists. Survivors describe an organized Pokomo militia, wearing red and black uniforms and having a clear command structure.

“They are after this delta, it is the only good delta in Kenya, the only big delta in Kenya,” said Omar Bacha, an Orma health worker. “That is why our tribe are being killed, and their cows are being destroyed.”

The Tana River region contains some of the nation’s most arable, but least developed land. Through the process of devolution outlined in Kenya’s new constitution, local administrators soon will have more control over regional resources.

A Human Rights Watch report released last week implicates Tana River politicians in the attacks. Last week the government arrested parliament-member Dhadho Godhana in connection with the violence. Godhana is running for governor of Tana River Country in the elections scheduled for next March.

The Daily Maverick ties the Tana River violence into an especially bleak outlook for election violence in “Kenya: the cauldron of violence is hotting up again:

After the brazen attacks continued in September it was clear there was more to it than access to land and water. Kenya is six months out from a national election and political violence has marred the run-up to votes in 1992, 1997 and 2001. The Kenyan Red Cross warned the same might occur as communities arm themselves in preparation, voters come to terms with new demarcations pitting ethnic rivals against each other, and politicians cope with a new system of devolved power.

“It is 100% political,” said National Cohesion and Integration Commission Chairman Mzalendo Kibunjia, who was tasked with investigating the causes of violence. “One community wants to destabilise the area and block the community from registering as voters so that it does not influence voting in the coming election.”

Kibaki, whose response to the disaster made Jacob Zuma’s reaction to the Marikana killings look statesmanlike, acknowledged it was politically motivated this week by sacking an MP who had been charged with inciting violence. He blocked parliament’s move to send the army into the area, instead opting to deploy 2,000 General Service Unit police (think Tactical Response Team).

So far, security forces have shown a complete inability to deal with the threat. Despite warnings of violence, police have continually been outnumbered, outgunned, arrived late to the battles, or have been forced to simply watch on in horror. Inquiries into the post-election violence found they failed to act on warnings, and it seems they’re doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Update: AFP reports that Kenyan police Monday found a mass grave in the Garsen area where recent killings have taken place, suggesting the real death toll may be higher than reported so far.

Looking to Sudan’s Referendum Sunday

The Financial Times covers a new report from Global Witness that concludes that a new oil revenue sharing agreement is needed to prevent Sudan from returning to war:

The Khartoum government has yet to make good on an agreement on sharing oil wealth with southern Sudan, potentially jeopardising the fragile peace as the south’s population votes on whether to split the country in two, according to a report by Global Witness, the UK-based resource lobbyists.

The sharing of oil income, which accounts for half of state revenues in the north of Sudan and 98 per cent in the south, is among the thorniest issues as predominately Christian southerners prepare to vote on independence on Sunday. The south is widely expected to secede and emerge as Africa’s newest country.

. . . .

“Far less data is being published by the Sudanese government now than it was in 2008 and the first half of 2009, which even then was insufficient to be able to verify the oil revenue sharing,” said the report.

Yesterday, the US hailed the latest overtures from the Bashir government to indicate that it was prepared to allow the rerendum, and succession, to proceed peacefully:

The United States has led pressure on the Khartoum government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir not to impede the secession vote. Carson said Washington was “extraordinarily pleased” by Bashir’s statements on a trip to the south Sudan capital of Juba on Tuesday that Khartoum was ready to let the south go.

“We hope that the north … will live up to those very promising statements,” Carson said.

Bashir’s visit is the latest sign that the referendum, which many analysts earlier said threatened to spark a return to war between the north and the south, may unfold peacefully.

Key issues including borders, citizenship and the fate of the oil-rich region of Abyei remain to be decided, making the six-month transition period following the secession vote a potentially dangerous period.

U.S. officials are already working on a development plan for an independent south Sudan, which accounts for 70 percent of Sudan’s overall oil production.

The United States is ready to recognize the new government quickly and appoint an ambassador to help lead efforts to improve basic infrastructure, healthcare, and education as well as trade and investment, officials said.

“We anticipate ramping this up very quickly after the referendum,” said Larry Garber, the deputy administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, denied suggestions the United States was motivated primarily by a interest in south Sudan’s oil, which remains a key sticking point in dealings between Khartoum and Juba and which has been largely off limits to western oil companies thanks to U.S. sanctions imposed on Sudan in 1997.

US officials also expressed confidence that political agreement would be reached on oil revenue and other economic issues and that the status of Abeyei is “longer a potential flashpoint for war,” such that they do not expect further “major violence”.

Here is this week’s roundup “As vote nears, Sudan’s south anticipates independence and problems” from Jeffrey Fleishman in the Los Angeles Times. And here is Rebecca Hamilton’s “Sudan Dispatch” in The New Republic.