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African diary - Kenya

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 26, 2008 - Kenya was the brightest spot on my first trip to Africa a year ago when our State Department-sponsored group traveled from Uganda to Kenya to Ethiopia. Kenya's economy was booming, the middle class growing and a robust election campaign was underway. The press was freer in Kenya than anywhere we went.

One of the promising journalists I met then was Andrew Kimkemboi, features editor at The Standard, one of the top papers in Nairobi. Andrew, a dapper dresser, was bullish on Kenya's future. He took me to a downtown restaurant where prosperous office workers ate lunch plates full of steaming meat and fish. He said that the good times in Kenya were one reason he was planning to vote for the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, even though he was from a different tribe.

Andrew changed his mind before the December election and, like many Kenyans, voted for the opposition. He was in the newsroom right after the election when the opposition's lead suddenly disappeared, apparently from some election officials' sleight-of-hand.

Suddenly, tribal divisions that had seemed unimportant a few months earlier emerged as a source of strife and violence that threatened to tear apart one of Africa's most successful states. Finally, the U.S. succeeded in brokering a deal between the incumbent president and his challenger, Raila Odinga, who became prime minister.

Andrew and his colleagues had difficult journalistic decisions to make during the period of violence. Recently, I asked him to write an account of two of the most difficult decisions. He is in the United States this summer as a Friendly Scholar at the Baltimore Sun.

In one case, his paper published incendiary material; in another it decided to withhold photos it feared would ignite new violence. Here is his account:

"...As the violence spread to other towns in the Rift Valley and with looting and killing going on with great abandon, a family of 18 hiding from the gangs that had blockaded the main Nairobi-Nakuru Highway were locked in and burnt in their house.

"Two wives and their 14 children died. The pictures showed the dead mothers trying to cover their children from the fire.

"Out on the highway, the gangs stopped public service vehicles and pulled out any passenger belonging to the 'wrong tribe.' There was footage of a man who was pulled out and cut into pieces. The mini-bus sped off leaving him at the mercy of the group.

"He was stoned and as he dashed to catch up with the bus, a rock hits him from behind and he falls on the tarmac. The bus runs over him.

"The pictures of the first incident were not run. We feared that other groups would pick up the burning and do it again. Two or three churches were burnt in copy cats after the first was reported.

"The second incident ran. Its graphic shocked the nation and the leaders came out to talk. It was about the lesser of the evils and exercising judgment."

As with most cases of journalistic ethics, there is no right and wrong answer to the print/don't print questions that Andrew and his colleagues faced.

I talked to journalists in Ethiopia and Uganda this year about the decisions the Kenyan journalists had to make. Several of the Ethiopian journalists said they would have gone further than the Kenyans and withheld both the photos and the story about the mothers and children who were burned alive.

The Ugandan journalists were more willing to publish both the photos and the story, reflecting the greater press freedom there. But Uganda is close to Rwanda, and the genocide there in the 1990s is fresh in people's minds. Some journalists think tribal fighting like Rwanda's or Kenya's could break out in Uganda, given an igniting spark.

The murder of the mothers and children poses a hard conflict between two important journalistic values - truth-telling and minimizing harm. Truth-telling is the journalist's main job and almost always trumps other values, especially in the United States. But it would be arrogant for a Western journalist to come here and tell Africans that truth-telling should prevail even when it could trigger tribal fighting.

The key is that the journalists need to make these decisions, not the government.

We focus a lot on the free press in these workshops in Africa. But, as much as I love our First Amendment and wish every African nation could have its freedoms, I realize that another constitutional failing is more damaging to Africans' freedom. That deficiency is less sexy. It is the willingness of those in power to give up power when they lose elections.

Too few African leaders are willing to give up power. In Ethiopia, in 2005, the success of the opposition party was met by force and arrests. In Kenya, in 2007, President Kibaki refused to given up power after the opposition won the most seats in the legislature. In Zimbabwe, now, Robert Mugabe won't give up power even though it is evident he lost this year's election. Instead, he accuses the opposition of treason. And in Uganda, the president appears to be clipping the wings of the press and limiting opposition assemblies to keep control for a fourth term in 2011.

We Americans believe in democracy and urge the world to adopt it as the way to run a fair and just society. But close democratic elections have been the source of great strife and violence in Africa because there is no tradition of relinquishing power. The press in Kenya played an important role in forcing a compromise between the president and the opposition. And in Uganda the private press is a forum for those who want to keep alive the possibility of a change in power.

This is one tough watchdog role that the press in the West does not need to play, but which fearless African reporters must play if democracy and freedom are to thrive on this continent.