Story Publication logo July 13, 2007

Letter from Nairobi



Bill Freivogel, for the Pulitzer Center
Addis Ababa, Kenya

We just got into Addis Ababa from Kenya last night. My best glimpse of life in Nairobi was when Andrew Kipkemboi, features editor of the Standard newspaper , took me for lunch to a downtown restaurant where part of the growing middle class of this city has lunch.

Andrew looks like a young George Curry, former colleague of Margie, Jon's and mine at the Post-Dispatch. Andrew has spent lots of time outside the country, speaks articulately and wears a Brooks Brothers suit that doesn't look like my rumpled versions. He's in his late 20s or early 30s and has a girlfriend studying nursing at UDC in Washington D.C.

The walk from our conference site to the restaurant took us through about 10 blocks of downtown. Andrew said that these streets had not been paved as late as 2000. He credits the current president, Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's third president, who was elected in 2002. Andrew says that he plans to vote for Kibaki, who is running for re-election later this year against a strong coalition of opposition parties called the Orange (Orange Democratic Movement, ODM—Kenya), apparently represented on the ballot in rural areas by the fruit. Andrew says that a friend recently told him of buying a share of stock in a Kenyan bank in 2002 for 300 shillings. The share is now worth 30,000,000 shillings and the man has bought a new car as a result. The Kenyan stock exchange is booming.

As we walked to the restaurant we passed a mosque. Andrew said his editor had to walk to this mosque and apologize for a story Andrew had written because Muslims had issued a fatwa and threatened to bomb it. More on this later. Inscribed over the mosque were the words: None shall worship other than Mohammed (or something close to this.)

The restaurant was a huge second floor room. One of the two pictures on the wall was a triumphant Mohammed Ali, then Cassius Clay, standing over a vanquished "Sonny" Liston. The other picture was of some American rock musician. I think he is famous but frankly do not have a clue who it is.

While we waited for the food Andrew asked me if I wanted to wash my hands at the bank of basins in one corner of the room. I said I did not need to because I had washed them recently. He reminded me I had touched a shilling note and suggested again that I wash them, motioning in a way that I finally realized we would be eating with our fingers. My plate contained spinach, chicken, tripe, beef, beef liver and a salad. Along with the meal I got a big plate of brown millet. It may be heaviest substance known to man. I ate everything but the tripe and salad. Andrew assured me that the beef had been slaughtered and delivered to the restaurant at 3 a.m. and was very fresh. Despite his assurances, I kept thinking all afternoon that I would probably get sick for my African experience. I did not, but vegetarianism is looking better and better.

Most of the hundred or so diners were men in business suits; the rest were women. Kenya seems to be very male-oriented. At the airport a man who served us beer laughed that Jim Kelly and I were letting Jyotika pay for us. He suggested it was typical of the weakness of American men. At lunch I asked Andrew why all of the reporters at the workshop were men, while most of the NGOs were women. He said that the job of reporting suited men more, with the late hours and all. I asked Mary, one of the NGOs, the same question and she said the same thing, but without conviction. I told her she didn't need to buy this line.

The other eye-opening experience I had was shopping at a Masai market. Imagine a football sized field with row upon row of small crafts, dozens of Masai, and small paths to negotiate through the market. We were immediately surrounded by Masai trying to sell their wares. One, who introduced himself as Bill, took my hand and led me along a path to his paintings on a fence at the back of the market. I bought one of them for $20, less than the $45 he had asked. Jyotika laughed at what an easy mark I had been. Jyotika has a keen sense of smell and had immediately smelled alcohol on Bill's breath, so she had steered clear. Later I watched Jyotika barter with a young woman over a Masai blanket which she was buying for me to take home. She and the young woman laughed and put their arms around each other as Jyotika pushed down the price and the girls tried to get more money to help her new-born daughter. They arrived at a ridiculously low price embraced each other and we went on our way. It was fun to watch. I do not think I am cut out for this barter economy. One thing that made the market hard was that young women carrying babies would come up to us asking for money. It is hard to say no, but I had to. I have to admit that I would not have felt comfortable at the market but that we were accompanied by two terrific guys who are photographers here: Jacob Otieno, photo editor of the Standard, and Noor Khamic, who works for, a clearinghouse for photography around the world. It didn't hurt that Jacob is about 6'4". I don't mean to suggest that the Masai were threatening. They weren't. Apparently, anyone trying to rob someone at a Masai market would have a swarm of Masai to deal with.

My first impression upon arriving in Kenya was that the press was under assault by the government, which is trying to push the Media bill through the parliament. By the time I left Nairobi, however, I realized that things have gotten better here than they were several years ago and that Kenya probably has a freer press than the rest of the countries we're visiting.

The workshop group was older and more experienced than the journalists we talked to in Uganda. Unfortunately, it seems as though they are more willing to compromise their principles. It was clear that bribery of journalists is a big problem here as in Uganda. Journalists would say that stories or instructions from the government would sometimes arrive with "the brown envelope." When one journalist would mention the envelope, all the others were laugh in recognition.

The Media bill would appoint a licensing board of journalists chosen by the government. The government claims that journalists have done a poor job of policing themselves. There is a national news counsel but it doesn't have power to punish anyone. Some of the journalists acknowledge that the press hasn't done a good job of policing themselves and seem open to the idea of a government appointed board with enforcement power that would include the power to withdraw the license of a journalist who published a story that made "mistakes." I told the journalists that government licensing boards equaled government censorship and that I even opposed news councils with no enforcement authority. I told then about Justice Brennan's argument in New York Times v. Sullivan that free expression needs breathing room for the press to make mistakes.

Another part of the media bill sounds as though it is much like the FCC regulations that bar cross-ownership of various media in one city. Several of the big papers in Nairobi also have radio and TV outlets. The reporters saw the proposal as an attempt by the government to diminish the power of the big news organizations. It was interesting that the same rule can have such different motivations in different countries. In the U.S., both conservative and liberal grassroots groups raised a huge fight when the FCC wanted to permit cross-ownership. Everyone from Rush to left-wing community radio feared a change would result in a loss in the diversity of voices. Here, though, the same proposal seems to be part of a government attack on the media.

The government is active controlling the media. A couple of years ago a person heading the KBC - the national broadcasting corporation - encouraged journalists to report on criticism of the government. He soon was moved out of this job when the government said that the national broadcasting corporation shouldn't be criticizing the government. Now the government provides its own tapes of information which are played as if they were news. The government also runs the KNA, a network of government reporters in the rural areas. One big change in the last decade is the burgeoning of FM stations in the countryside, although they apparently also have a government connection. These stations are not as developed though as the rural stations in Uganda that have sprung up in recent years, a sign of vitality in the press there.

While we in the U.S. see most government information as belonging to the public, the government takes the opposite position here. All government information is presumptively secret and owned by the government. Civil servants, including reporters for the KNA, have to sign an agreement not to disclose any government information.

We had a demonstration of the power of some of the media companies on the second day of our visit. Andrew pointed out to me that The Nation paper had a big spread on Aga Khan, a very rich and powerful Pakistani mogul who is also spiritual head to15 million Ismaili Muslims who live in 25 countries around the world. Khan says he is a direct descendant of Mohammed through Ali, meaning this is a Shia community. It is the golden jubilee of Khan's leadership and his wonderful works in funding schools and hospitals was prominently featured in the story:

Jyotika says it is true that this man has been a very positive force. My point to the journalists, though, was that The Nation should have mentioned that Khan is the principal stockholder in The Nation. Made for an interesting ethical discussion. Apparently The Nation's TV station published the controversial Mohammad cartoons a few years ago to show what people around the world were rioting about. The Muslim community demanded an apology and The Nation quickly provided one. There were big demonstrations at the time. Mary Kimani, the NGO I mentioned earlier, had her car hijacked during these demonstrations. She was lucky to emerge from a crash at the end of a chase without injuries.

Back to Andrew's story. There was a proposal to amend the constitution to allow the Muslim minority to set up its own courts and to bring non-Muslims before them. This was great cause for alarm in much of the rest of the community. Andrew got a scoop that this proposed change was going to be dropped. In his story he wrote that the Christian community would be "relieved" by the development. The fatwa, bombing threats and mosque apology followed. Andrew was reprimanded. I asked the group of journalists at the workshop whether they thought the paper should have apologized. Most thought Andrew's statement was accurate but that the paper was right to apologize to avoid being bombed. I asked them where this would stop if the media is ready to apologize for truthful statements if they are faced with threats of violence. Of course, there is a legitimate question whether the language that Andrew used was the best. But the press needs at least this much breathing room.

Despite the threat of the Media bill and the many government pressures on the media, the journalists said they were much freer than a few years back when journalists were jailed for what they wrote.

We got into a big traffic jam leaving Nairobi. Cars are sometimes stopped for hours on the highways leaving the city. Actually, this is another sign of the burgeoning middle class. You could see young professionals at the wheel of their cars, talking on cell phones, on their way home from their city jobs. The highway out of town had a parkway and ran along a central park. It is the middle of winter here but the flowers and flowering trees are beautiful. It was about 80 degrees during the day of our visit.

We have several days now in Ethiopia. Jim tells me about 35 journalists that are still in jail after having been locked up during the 2005 elections. Apparently the journalists worked for political papers that had popped up during the election campaign. It should make for an interesting discussion if the journalists are willing to talk.

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