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.”

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.

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.

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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.