Kenya media, security forces soul search after Westgate

Should journalists expect support and protection from security agents when they risk their lives to report on security operations? What if their coverage could potentially expose military strategies? Why are journalists disparaged as unpatriotic when they show how security operations fail?

These and other questions were at the heart of a discussion in Nairobi recently between leaders of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and National Police Service Commission (NPSC) and the Media Council of Kenya. The meeting, on February 7, was organized by the council in the wake of its study on how media covered the September 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, which killed 67 people.

In the study, journalists said they were not adequately prepared by their editors on how to cover the Westgate mall story. One photojournalist said the only advice he got from his editor was not to risk his life because he needed to be alive to tell the story. The study established that journalists who had previously covered crime were better prepared psychologically to cover the attack while others were overwhelmed by fear and intensity.

“Covering this incident was a bit terrifying, knowing that these were not normal thugs but terrorists with state-of-the art artillery and who could kill any time,” said one respondent to the council’s study.

Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Defence, Raychelle Omamo, and Gen. Julius Karangi, head of the KDF, blamed the media for being not only a security risk and an obstacle but also aiding criminals by giving them information on security plans and installations. They said that, except for journalists embedded with security forces, media should not report on details of military operations.

“You only play into the hands of terrorists and criminals by glorifying their activities on live coverage, and assist them instilling fear amongst the public–and in your quest to get the news, you expose yourselves to considerable danger,” Gen. Karangi said.

Journalists at the meeting differed. Nation Media Group Chief Executive Linus Gitahi acknowledged that the media was ill-prepared to cover such a big event but said journalists did their best. “Yes, we [made] mistakes and admitted whenever that happened, but the general preparedness of Kenyans during emergencies is wanting,” Gitahi said.

Editors Dominic Wabala of Radio Africa Group and Wellington Nyongesa of Radio Maisha said security and media relations during such operations needs to be coordinated and improved.

“We editors compromised the security of our reporters during the Westgate terrorist attack and we must take responsibility. It’s time newsrooms worked on security support structures for the journalists, for we cannot trust the security agencies to always extend help,” Wabala said.

Media houses in Kenya do not have adequate protective gear and equipment for journalists, and even when they do, they are required by law to deposit security gear with police, making the process of actually accessing the equipment slow and cumbersome. 

The Media Council’s report found that the press might have compromised security operations during the mall siege. Live coverage showing special security forces preparing to enter the building where hostages were being held could have risked the operation and put the hostages in jeopardy. Of respondents to the study, 70% said they felt that media failed to ask critical questions about the historical, cultural, and social context of terrorism and instead focused on dramatic, violent, or bizarre accounts of the attack.

“With no briefs from editors, reporters were reduced to conveyor belts of misinformation that lacked in credibility and objectivity. Some of the reporters were traumatized and shocked and received no counselling after the incident,”‘ Nyongesa said.