Shortly after I became the Kenya Star’s public editor in early 2011, the paper published a story under the headline “Police move to stop sex party at Muliro Garden,” about the sorry state of a park in one of Kenya’s outlying towns. Accompanying it was a photo which, though it revealed no actual offending flesh, left little doubt that it showed a couple having sex on a park bench.
Outraged emails poured into my inbox: “I was in shock”… “Who in their right mind”… “That was not moral and responsible journalism.”
As these comments suggest, Kenya’s newspaper-reading public is, for the most part, not much different from its counterparts elsewhere. (Kenya, with a population of nearly 40 million, has five national dailies—all but one published in English—and a growing middle-class that has embraced Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones but still looks to newspapers to set the agenda of national debate.)
Among the things Star readers dislike most are graphic photos, “tasteless” cartoons, and perceived bias—especially regarding politicians they support. But their most frequent complaints involve spelling mistakes and bad grammar. In one typical email, reader Michael Hatego listed 12 such errors in that day’s paper but confessed that he’d only got to page 7 before becoming worn out. “They could be said to be minor, yes, but they irritate me no end,” he wrote.
At a time when the ranks of news ombudsmen are thinning in the US (I was dismayed to read about the most recent casualty at The Washington Post), it’s exciting to be part of a trend in the opposite direction in many countries in the developing world. At the annual gathering last year of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, in Copenhagen, I talked with ombudsmen from India and Bangladesh who, like me, were working for relatively new newspapers. There were also people from several countries in Latin America, which according to Jeffrey Dvorkin, head of the organization, is the fastest-growing region for ombudsmen. He attributes this largely to a belief in countries once under dictatorial rule that ombudsmen play an important role in strengthening democratic institutions.
Experiences I’ve had in Kenya reinforce that notion. Kiprono Kittony, the chairman of the board of Radio Africa Group, the parent company of the Star, recently told me that he thinks that ombudsmen, as part of media self-regulation, help preserve freedom of the press. Referring to a specific guarantee of such freedom in the Constitution voted in by Kenyans in 2010, he said that if journalists don’t engage in self-regulation, “it gives government a huge opportunity to roll back the gains of Article 34.”
My route to the public editor’s job began in 2008, when I became a consulting editor at the Star with responsibility for producing internal critiques of the paper. (Previously I’d been managing editor of The Nation, in New York, after being inspired to go into journalism during a Peace Corps stint in Kenya years before.) After three years at the Star I persuaded the editors to give the idea of a public editor a try. It would be a first for the Star—and for Kenya—and I’d be one of only a handful of ombudsmen on the continent. The editors were game, and we signed a two-year agreement that assured me independence with regard to what I wrote in my columns.
Those two years have just ended and my successor, a Kenyan with a journalism degree from Columbia University, has just started work. The decision to hire him means that the public editor’s job is an established position at the Star—a move that is all the more remarkable considering that the paper, less than six years old, is still only marginally profitable. Managing director William Pike, who estimates the Star’s circulation at 35,000 and its readership at 10 times that (Kenyan newspapers are typically passed on numerous times because of their relatively high cost), says having a public editor has “become a tradition and people expect it.”