A Kenyan human rights worker and his journalist shadow

June 4, 2019
Francis Auma (left) jokes with journalist Ernest Cornel in the greenroom of Kenyan television station K24, before his interview on a Senate investigation into extrajudicial killings in Mombasa. Photo by Adam Muro.

I first met Francis Auma, a rapid response officer for the Kenyan NGO Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), in February in one of Kenya’s ubiquitous Java House cafés in Nyali, a few kilometers up the beach from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast. He was trailed by a skinny man in his mid-20s who had a patchy goatee, and who wore a baseball cap low over wary eyes that glanced around the entire dining room before settling on mine. The man introduced himself as Ernest Cornel, and spent most of the meeting on his phone texting.

I asked Auma about his work documenting extrajudicial killings and disappearances by state security services. At multiple points during the interview he got tripped up on a data point and looked towards Cornel, asking him to confirm dates or numbers of victims.

Finally I stopped them, and asked Cornel to clarify who he was.

“I’m a journalist,” he replied.

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Cornel is a staff reporter at The Star, one of Kenya’s top English language news outlets. He covers human rights abuses by police in Kenya’s coastal region, which is predominantly populated by Muslims. Auma is one of his main sources.

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Cornel contacted Auma in 2016 for a story he was working on. Since then, their trust has grown and blossomed into a kind of symbiosis between journalist and NGO worker. Now, Cornel has become Auma’s shadow. The results have been mutually beneficial, providing Cornel with inside access to the frontlines of a vital issue the Kenyan government works hard to minimize, and increased safety for Auma, who frequently finds himself at odds with rogue elements of state security services as he tries to expose their crimes.  

As funding models for investigative reporting change, journalism and civil society seem increasingly intertwined, if not blended. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, noted for its work on the Panama Papers, is cooperating with Transparency International on a global anti-corruption initiative, and the past few years have seen major NGOs such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union staff up with journalists and publish high-caliber investigations. The logic is simple: as news organizations have become more reluctant or unable to commit resources to long-term investigations, NGOs have stepped in to fill the gap on stories and projects where their interests align. The same logic applies to Cornel and Auma’s relationship, but with a few added dimensions.

It’s their own friendship, you see, they just do it, and we do not tell them not to.

Cornel, who is 25, covered human rights before he met Auma. “From the moment he started tagging me along I have been getting sensitive information that I could never have gotten before,” Cornel says. “He has sources and connections that are very valuable to me, especially in the security sector.”

He spent a year cultivating Auma as a source; nine months ago, the two made the partnership official, agreeing to travel together and to share sources and information.  Since then, Cornel has published over a dozen stories on police killings and disappearances that have occurred all over the country. The two work so closely together that sometimes the line between their roles blurs. Cornel will sometimes answer Auma’s phone if he is busy.  

“It’s an alliance that we MUHURI were not even party to,” Khelef Khalifa, the director of the NGO, says. “It’s their own friendship, you see, they just do it, and we do not tell them not to.”

Khalifa co-founded MUHURI in the 90’s and began his career in the field documenting extra judicial killings just like Auma. Along with its documentary work,  MUHURI seeks to bridge the gap between the Kenyan government and the country’s Muslim community, which is an essential partner in the fight against violent extremism, but often bears the brunt of security service enforcement.

Most of MUHURI’s cases, Auma says, are police killings. “Basically it’s just go to the scene of the crimes, interview the victims,” Auma says. “We go to the hospital if it’s a shooting and someone survived. We also go to the morgue during the post-mortem.” Auma turns the information he gathers over to the Kenya National Human Rights Commission and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, two watchdog agencies created by the government to police and prosecute these crimes.

Years of doing this work has put a target on Auma’s back, and has earned him a reputation as a defender of criminals, and even terrorist sympathizer, by police and their supporters. Police, according to Khalifa, dread evidence that might tarnish their name. “Because of the ongoing threat from the police, he [Cornel] always goes with him” into the field, Khalifa says. Auma says he has gone to safe houses on several occasions.

Still, Auma’s job necessitates frequent contact with police, and that’s where Cornel has proved himself vital to the partnership. In early February, Auma went to the police station in the coastal city of Malindi to report police harassment of a woman whose relatives had been arrested in connection with the 2015 al-Shabaab attack on Garissa University, further north, near the border with Somalia. After terrorist attacks, Auma says, it’s normal to see collective punishment meted out on Muslims nationwide as security forces come under pressure to shake the trees and investigate. As usual, Cornel tagged along.

As the two men tell it, the front desk at the police station was jammed with people, so Francis walked right past it, down a narrow hallway, to the commanding officer’s door. The clerk wouldn’t let them pass, and an argument ensued.

“I was wearing my uniform, I had the tag here,” Auma says, pointing to the embroidered blue MUHURI logo on his white polo shirt. “You can see this is a human rights officer.”  

“Out of nowhere the guy erupted,” Cornel chimes in, “the guy came out suddenly shoving him, and I said, ‘Oh man, this is serious.”

Cornel had been standing quietly in the corner of the station while the scene unfolded, and whipped out his phone and started recording. Later, he posted the video online.

“The following day, I was informed that he had threatened to ‘deal with’ Francis after the video went viral,” he says. However, the two say this is not the first time they’ve dealt with intimidation.

“For me, for us, now we are used to it,” Auma says. “I don’t fear anymore.”

Any time journalism and civil society rely on each other, ethical questions about loss of objectivity arise. Dr. Lindsay Palmer, a professor at the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the issue is not so cut and dry, especially when covering sensitive topics. “You can raise the ethical concerns about how this may be shaping the story, but on the other hand, is it really ethical if there is chance to cover a story this harrowing, that people need to know, not to cover it when you can? I would say probably not.”

I asked Cornel about this when I caught up with him and Auma in April in Nairobi, at the studios of K24, a national television station. Cornel had tapped his old journalism school classmate, Peter Okeah, now a reporter there, to interview Auma for a news report on the progress of a special investigation by the Kenyan Senate into extrajudicial killings in Mombasa.

That morning they had been in Kisumu, in the far west of Kenya, following up on reports of police violence following the 2017 national elections. They had driven about six hours to Nairobi for the interview; that evening, after the traffic died down, they would make the trip back to Mombasa, another eight hours away.

“I have to tell this story by all means, it doesn’t matter what people say,” Cornel says. “Today, if I’m not telling this story, who will do it? And for these guys to give you information they have to trust you. Not every Tom, Dick, and Harry can be given such information.”

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Adam Muro is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He has reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Nairobi, Kenya.