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.
My own investigation revealed that the editors had been duped by an acquaintance of one of them who claimed to have taken the photo himself. Unfortunately, no one checked any further. My ultimate conclusion—that publication of the photo was the result of a collective failure of responsibility within the Star newsroom—met with considerable internal hostility; one top editor emailed me to say that my remarks were “demoralizing” and unfair. But on the morning the column ran, Ndemo called the Star to say that as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed.
Ndemo told me recently that he had been under great pressure to act against the Star because of the high level of outrage among senior government officials. (The most likely reason is that they knew they would face inevitable speculation about whether the crash had been planned by opponents of the minister, who was a candidate for president at the time of his death.)
Recalling media crackdowns that were once the norm, Ndemo said, “In the ’80s, the paper would have been shut down and someone would have been in jail.” The public editor’s column, however, “removed so much anger,” Ndemo said. “It satisfied everyone. It feels good when someone admits a mistake.”
In the years ahead, I hope to see an increase in the number of ombudsmen in Africa, because I truly believe they make for more involved readers and more accountable (and less vulnerable) media institutions. One of the comments I appreciated most during my own time as the Star’s public editor came from a reader who, after sending quite a hostile email about what he perceived as the paper’s bias against Uhuru Kenyatta, followed up with a friendly response after I wrote back, privately, with some observations about what he’d said. “I think every Newspaper should, as a rule, have a responsive public editor!” he concluded.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I couldn’t agree more.