STATE HOUSE PRESS WAR

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I Accuse the Press

They danced with adversary. Now it’s payback time

By NLM Reporter

As it were, State House’s pressure on The Standard Group was two-fold: While President Kenyatta telephoned Sam Shollei, chief executive of Kenya’s second largest news group, State House official Manoah Esipisu read the Riot Act to Chaacha Mwita, the the news media’s editorial director.

 

The President made it known to Shollei he was unhappy with The Standard’s treatment of a story that had infuriated the public and cast his Jubilee government in awkward light. “That is not what I expect of a serious publication,” he told him.

The Standard Group (owners of the The Standard, Sunday Standard, Nairobian, KTN and Radio Maisha,and PDS) had in mid-March reported that a Cabinet retreat “could” have cost the government Sh100 million.” While State House was unreachable for comment during its drafting, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich disputed the figure.

It stated: “But calculations by The Standard, based on actual expenditure incurred by our reporters at the resort after the Government event and interviews of people in the know reveals a different picture. The Ksh100 million figure was derived from costing of the 120 rooms reserved for the government delegation at the resort, fees paid for closing of hotel to other guests, food and accommodation levies, and the cost of plane-hiring and extra services by (Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club).

“However the figure could be higher if the allowances the officials are entitled to when they work out of station are factored in.”

The dossier incensed State House. “There are other ways of dealing with this matter. But we don’t want a protracted war,” Esipisu, Secretary of Communications and the Presidential Spokesperson, cautioned Chaacha, in reaction to the latter’s reluctance to “correct, apologize and retract” the story.

State House Comptroller Lawrence Lenayapa, next to Esipisu, and Irene Kimani (Group Commercial Director, Standard Group) and Enoch Wambua (Managing Editor, Sunday Standard) by the side of Chaacha, merely watched as Esipisu, one of Kenya’ most respected journalist, questioned Standard’s reporting of the Executive retreat.

Then Lenayapa, former permanent secretary for Environment and Mineral Resources, gave what he described as a “breakdown” of the money used in the retreat.

“Fine, if you give me concrete evidence (documentation) showing the cost, and the list of people who attended, I will go ahead and run an apology,” Chaacha offered, according to an insider at the meeting. “Give me evidence and I will”.

Esipisu made it known that the retreat at the luxurious hotel cost the State just Sh8.1 million. The following day, State House released a copy of an invoice indicating the parley had guzzled Sh8.4 million. Elsewhere, The Star newspaper was reporting that it cost Sh14 million – Incidentally, State House had no qualms about The Star’s figure.

Fairmont, one of the most recognized hotels in the world, charges Sh55,000 a room a night – excluding drinks. The presidential suite is even dearer. While Standard claimed 120 attended the rendezvous, The Star stated 60 officials stayed there for four days. Thus, a rough estimate (exclusive of drinks, reservation, hire and other luxuries) gives Sh26.4 million for 120 participants.

After the telephone call, Shollei was convinced The Standard Group had to publish an unequivocal apology. According to insiders, State House reminded news corporation’s management about the value of Government-sponsored advertisements (hundreds of millions of shillings) it was likely to miss out if it remained intransigent.

(The total advertising expenditure for government of Kenya institutions, state agencies and parastatals for the period between June 2012 and April 2013 was Sh2.8 billion, according to Ministry of Information. This figure only includes the three main dailies. The Standard gets about Sh1.1 billion of this vote, say sources at the media company)

“It was a thinly veiled threat, that Standard risks being isolated as regards government tenders,” says the insider.

A fortnight later, after the State House meeting, Chaacha Mwita (who has scaled journalism rungs, from a stringer in the 1990s to a reporter, internet editor, sub-editor, editor-in-chief, and editorial director) was hounded out of office in very demeaning manner. He was frog-marched out of Standard offices.

(Chaacha declined an interview)

The story behind The Standard’s beef with State House hasn’t been told. This publication, The Nairobi Law Monthly, has pieced together a report based on widespread interviews – and the resultant story is about Government’s renewed attempt to assert itself on the only sector that appears to attract widespread public trust.

What befell Chacha is nothing new. According to media analysts, it’s the continuation of the State’s methodical attempt to control what comes out of the private media – at a time when the Jubilee government faces questions about its below-average performance in its first year in office. Indeed, it’s not a secret anymore that the Jubilee engine is stuttering – struggling to pay its workers, and facing countless questions about its tendering practices, corruption and public appointment.

“There are moments when you see that the government pulls certain levers to obtain its desires – to frustrate certain reporting so that it can portray a positive image of itself,” says David Makali, the executive director of Media Institute. “You can see some level of deftness in media manipulation; they’re sophisticated.”

Makali, a renowned media analyst sees “certain intolerance to information that questions (government’s) legitimacy … anything that questions its validity is likely to be me with suppression”.

The Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) is awaiting Chaacha Mwita to launch a complaint with it before it responds, according to its deputy secretary general Eric Oduor.

“We are worried about the happenings. The problem is that colleagues don’t bring these cases forward so that we can follow them up.” In an earlier news statement, the Union said Kenyans had a right to scrutinize public spending and to “audit performance of all public bodies financed (by) the taxpayer”.

A media scholar who seeks not to be mentioned, for he doesn’t want to antagonise a government he consults for, observes, “taxpayers have a right to scrutinize the use of their money, and it’s only the media that can do it on behalf of the public. We all know that oversight agencies are all compromised, that’s why people depend on the media”.

Perhaps the critical question is: Is the Presidency (nay State House) trying to micro-manage the media?

David Matende, media analyst for this publication wrote in February, thus “the lethargy now affecting the media started just before the elections when journalists seemed to have completely abandoned their watchdog role, ostensibly to promote peace.

“Even as claims emerged of malpractices before and after the elections, the media never bothered to follow up on the whole electoral process, to help people see if the exercise was free, fair and credible. All they did was the usual daily reporting. This docile posture earned them unusual accolades from people in authority.”

Then, immediately after the elections, journalists appeared to dance with the same people they were meant to hold accountable.

Jubilee sought to pass a message to the public: Media had endorsed the new administration. After feeding on bacon, toast and omelet at the widely publicized “breakfast meeting” at State House”, the journalists squandered every opportunity to fire any substantive questions. Indeed, they took plenty of coffee – but failed to smell it. Jubilee’s objective wasn’t to build bridges with the media.

Result? The Press now finds itself in a technical bind, catch 22. Its attempt to “unfree” itself is being met by forceful counter-measure. And the public is not sympathetic, as the media struggles with the credibility test.

“It is no wonder that when, late last year, Parliament passed oppressive media laws, the public was not particularly enthusiastic in supporting the media,” Matende says.

Indeed, the government finds it extremely difficult to understand why a hitherto pliant media is gradually doing an about-turn and “slandering” the same people who treated them to coffee and tea before and after elections. “The treatment of the Standard story (on the Executive rendezvous at Fairmont) is a manifestation of media intolerance yet,” says Makali.

Given the amount of advertising from the government, it is more likely that the media will continue to cow down to the weight of the government. Soon, journalists will be forced to reveal sources for their “incriminating stories”.

“When Press becomes intrusive, the government will fight back viciously,” says Makali.

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