By: MUTUMA MATHIU
When Kenya went to war in mid-October 2011, the Daily Nation entered new, dangerous territory. First, we would put our staff directly in harm’s way more than we had done in the past.
We had sent teams to conflict areas, but this was a military situation. Secondly, a conflict situation such as that one was a danger to the truth.
So our reputation was at stake because of the potential for the military to attempt to use us for propaganda, as all militaries have done in modern times, from the Gulf War to Afghanistan.
In war, there are no independent sources; you are either embedded with the Kenya Defence Forces or with Al-Shabaab.
And our readers were not interested in us beating the drum, as they say in Kiswahili, for either party but for an accurate report of what was happening on the front. The very idea of objective news from the war front is a fallacy.
All militaries censor news from front-line reporters.
Our challenge was to find a way to signal to our readers that they were getting information, which had gone through a military filter and do it in such a way as not to cause damage to relations with the soldiers.
The other aspect was our inexperience. Having never gone to war, we did not even know how to distinguish our staff from the combatants.
That is when we discovered that there are many types of flak jackets and helmets and that you needed a permit to own one.
Then we came to the one-million-dollar question: Whom would we send? The military had their own very serious restrictions, particularly regarding reporters who also filed for international papers.
Internally, we were looking for a reporter who had very good skills, was both physically and mentally tough, and had the courage to go to war.
We thought we had many such individuals but when Joe Odindo, my boss at the time, and I started talking to likely candidates, we were surprised at the number and variety of excuses we got from many.
The reporter we finally settled on, John Ngirachu, had the right software — smart, generally unflappable, a tendency to argue, difficult to persuade, and decidedly headstrong, all good qualities for a first-class reporter — but he was also young and relatively inexperienced.
Sending a young guy on a dangerous assignment where one loose mortar, one overlooked IED, a sleepy sentry, and a million other things could spell disaster is a living hell of its own kind.
Ngirachu earned our respect for taking the assignment and our trust in the way he executed it.
RESPONSIBLE AND BALANCED
A careless reporter can endanger the lives of the troops with whom he is embedded.
A poor reporter can allow his mind to be taken over by the military so that he is used as a weapon of war.
I think Ngirachu struck the balance beautifully, pushing the envelope as far it could go in order to get the story but ensuring that his reporting remained responsible and balanced.
When he was arrested by Serious Crimes Unit detectives from the Criminal Investigations Directorate, I was very surprised.
First, because arresting editors within Parliament, for reporting a story from an open session of a House committee, is unheard of.
Even President Moi did not do it, and he used to run a very dictatorial government. Secondly, reporters do not, cannot, reveal their sources and even the courts now recognise that.
Was Gen Joseph Nkaissery unaware of that? His media adviser, Mr Mwenda Njoka, is a celebrated investigative journalist who would surely know the value of protecting news sources. Besides, the source of the information was not a secret and was disclosed in the story.
BULLYING A GOOD MAN
The Daily Nation is not a reckless publication.
We have thought very hard and carefully documented an approach that we are satisfied enables us to cover sensitive national security issues without compromising the safety of Kenyans or security officers, but which at the same time is committed to ensuring that we inform readers in as full a manner as possible.
As a matter of editorial policy and practice, corruption is not classifiable.
The rules of government secrecy cannot be used to cover up corruption, even though the government has tried to do this for many years. (In the Anglo Leasing scandal, the purchase of CCTV cameras was classified.)
Gen Nkaissery is bullying a good man.
The fact remains that the full story of the expenditure of Sh3.8 billion by the Ministry of the Interior in June is yet to be told, but it will be.
SOURCE: DAILY NATION