As I mentioned, a lot of what I’ve dealt with sitting here in Nairobi isn’t much different than it would be at the desk of any public editor anywhere. But some issues forced me to re-examine what I thought I knew about journalistic ethics and the role of the press.
Probably the thorniest has been tribalism and its corollary “hate speech”—a crime that was only put on the books after the disputed 2007 presidential election, which was followed by violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives. One incident, which happened before I took office but continued to draw attention, involved the Star’s reporting of a public event at which a member of Parliament threatened that if the new Constitution was passed, “then Kikuyus should prepare to leave Rift Valley en masse.” (Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest ethnic grouping, have been somewhat unwelcome settlers in Rift Valley for many years.) The Star was the only paper that published the remark.

Some months later—with that incident still in the news because of a court case against the member of Parliament, and with claims of tribalism and hate speech on the rise—I did an informal survey of Star reporters and editors that showed a broad range of opinions as to what constitutes “hate speech” and how it should be handled. One young political reporter told me, as I reported in my column, that he felt it was his responsibility “not to raise passions.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, a veteran editor said he was in favor of reporting statements by major figures, “however incendiary,” because otherwise such people would feel free to continue making such statements.

My own opinion had evolved, I told my readers. I still generally favored the “if it’s true, publish it” approach, but explained that I had come to see that this is not an absolute. A hateful comment made at a time of major unrest perhaps ought not to be reported in the same way as a similar comment at a quieter time, I wrote, “if it is reported at all”—a line that would probably get me read out of the ACLU.

Another contentious issue I’ve dealt with is the relationship between news organizations and government regulators. The Media Council of Kenya, established by Parliament and given statutory powers to investigate complaints against the press, has been particularly tough on the Star, which, as the newest newspaper in town, has tried to distinguish itself from the pack with aggressive reporting and outspoken columnists.

One of those who have used the Media Council to air his grievances against the paper is Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s just-elected next president (though legal challenges are pending) and a son of the country’s founding leader. In testimony to the Council last year, Kenyatta, who is facing charges at the International Criminal Court relating to the post-2007 election violence, claimed that remarks by Star columnist Jerry Okungu were part of a broad effort by the paper to discredit him. Okungu had written that if Kenyatta were elected, it would remind the world of Hitler’s election in 1933.

In a column I wrote about the matter, I raised the question of how independent the Media Council can be, given that it’s established and funded by the government. I also suggested that Kenyatta lodge a complaint with the Star’s public editor rather than going the Media Council route. Regrettably, Kenyatta didn’t take my advice. Instead, he tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce my column as further evidence of the Star’s hostility. What will happen remains to be seen; the Council has yet to make a ruling on Kenyatta’s complaint.

The Media Council figured in another situation last year in which the Star ran a front-page photo of a helicopter with smoke billowing from its undercarriage. It was identified as the helicopter that shortly thereafter crashed, killing the Minister of Internal Security. Unfortunately, the picture was a fake, or, more correctly, not one of the doomed helicopter but rather an image of one that someone had captured from the Internet. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, promptly announced that he was lodging a complaint with the Media Council on the grounds that the picture was misleading and tended to distort the cause of the crash.

Karen Rothmyer (karen.rothmyer@gmail.com) has lived in Kenya since 2007. Starting in April she will be a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, researching the value of news ombudsman.