Journalists at CPJ's Nairobi launch of Attacks on the Press today. (CPJ)
Journalists at CPJ's Nairobi launch of Attacks on the Press today. (CPJ)

Nairobi Attacks launch probes investigative reporting

At CPJ’s book launch of our annual survey of press freedom conditions across the world, Attacks on the Press, today in Nairobi, we focused on the growing theme of challenges to investigative journalism in Africa, with a particular look at East Africa. The subject certainly resonated with the local and foreign journalists here. 

Andrew Teyie, investigative editor of The Star, a relatively new daily that is gaining prominence in Kenya, described his own challenges in trying to expose what he said was lost evidence against a terrorist suspect. Both Teyie and Star reporter Maina Kamore covered a case of allegedly mishandled evidence against a suspect wanted in the 1988 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Teyie told the audience that authorities attempted to pressure Teyie and Kamore to reveal their sources, even going so far as to falsify a court order. Fortunately, the case against the Star reporters was recently put to rest, but it is testament to the fact that even countries that claim to uphold a free, vibrant press do not like probing, critical journalists.

Conditions for Kenyan journalists could soon deteriorate, said another speaker, Jared Obuya, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Kenyan Union of Journalists. Contrary to the country’s new constitution, which includes strong clauses safeguarding press freedom, the government is actively seeking to reintroduce media control through the courts. The 2010 Media Bill, proposed by the Ministry of Information, would do away with the principle of self-regulation and place media regulation under another arm of the government–the often compromised Kenyan judiciary, Obuya warned the journalists in the room. “Kenyans should resist these changes,” Obuya said. “The media is the sole credible voice against corruption, injustice, and bad governance.”

Critical journalists in East Africa are also often the sole voices of opposition in elections in which the ruling party has rendered the opposition parties toothless. I mentioned that this was evident in the elections in Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia last year. And it is a trend we may see continue–as Tervil Okoko, the Eastern Africa Journalist Association (EAJA) editor, pointed out–with much of the region facing elections between January 2010 and December 2012.

Economics also play a large factor in East Africa in determining whether investigative journalism takes place. With small salaries and little influence or interaction with media owners, Teyie told me, journalists are often compromised and resort to covering day-to-day politics and news conferences rather than taking the financial risk it would require to investigate sensitive issues. EAJA estimates that 70 percent of media content in the region is produced by journalists who have no formal employment contracts with employers, and who are working under very difficult fiscal conditions, Okoko said.

Which is not to say that there are no in-depth investigations going on. As there are new challenges to state power, many governments are putting their backs up in the region, and journalists are taking note and watching closely. The events of Tunisia and Egypt are not lost on the East African media, or their governments. Social media played a large role in orchestrating the revolts in both countries–and governments here are taking note. Facebook usage in Kenya is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The burgeoning market of mobile phones is exploding in this part of the world. This social media revolution induced Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to call on his supporters to launch counter-Facebook actions recently. CPJ and our local partners will be here in East Africa to monitor and advocate as the tug-of-war between a probing regional media and authoritarian governments unused to challenges unfolds. 

(Reporting from Nairobi)