Kenyan Journalists Face the Aftermath

Lucy Anaya was a neophyte reporter in March 2005. Over the years, she covered beauty pageants, body building, women's and children's issues. Her byline often appeared on human-interest stories full of colorful detail.

Lucy Anaya was a neophyte reporter in March 2005. Over the years, she covered beauty pageants, body building, women's and children's issues. Her byline often appeared on human-interest stories full of colorful detail.

On December 31, 2007, Anaya's career as a feature writer took a 180-degree turn.

She was at home when the first murderous spasms engulfed her Nairobi neighborhood. She peered out from a balcony to see mobs armed with machetes, bows and arrows, and clubs. Suddenly, she, along with some of her neighbors, became targets of ethnic hatred.

The marauders ordered them to go back into the house "lest we circumcise and slaughter you." They threatened, "We will come for you at night. We will kill you!" Her once peaceful suburb, a patchwork of different tribes, had become a death trap.

"We were so frightened the whole night. The following morning, people had been killed and property destroyed," Anaya wrote in a mid-March email. She heard that males from certain tribes had been circumcised with pieces of broken bottles and left to bleed to death.

When she went to investigate, the government's militia threatened to kill her. Being branded a traitor by one faction or another could be a death sentence, said the reporter, who turned to gospel music for solace during those difficult times.

Like others in Kenya's press corps, Anaya was stunned by the ferocity of the violence that followed a disputed presidential election in late December.

The violent outbreaks began after opposition leader Raila Odinga accused President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the vote. Tribal animosity became the great divide — there are 40 ethnic groups in Kenya's population of 37 million. Tribal gangs, supporting one candidate or the other, roamed towns and villages, looting and torching buildings, chopping down telephone posts, ripping up railroad tracks and attacking the population. By mid-April, at least 1,200 were dead and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes.

On April 13, in a settlement hoped to restore stability to the country, President Kibaki named his rival Odinga prime minister and the two agreed on a coalition cabinet. The new government has already faced a new challenge, as members of the feared Mungiki gang killed four and battled police in an Nairobi industrial area, fire-bombing cars and setting up blazing roadblocks, according to news reports.

Kenya had earned a reputation as one of East Africa's most prosperous and stable democracies, boasting a billion-dollar-a-year tourist industry. But in the last few months, the country has faced its worst crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1963. Local journalists were trapped in the turmoil.

Nothing had prepared them to cover Kenyans being hacked with axes and burned alive. On the outskirts of the town of Eldoret, a church was set on fire, killing 50, mostly women and children, who had sought refuge there. Suddenly, journalists were facing machete-wielding mobs and recording unimaginable atrocities. Often, they became targets.

Some were beaten by the police, shot at or attacked by one faction or another that viewed them as enemies or collaborators with the other side. They placed themselves in harm's way without basic safety gear such as bulletproof vests or gas masks, uncommon items in most newsrooms. In the early going, resources to help them cope emotionally were all but non-existent.

Musa Radoli, general secretary of the Kenya Correspondent Association, was one of few who reported on the psychological trauma his colleagues were suffering. In a story for the Royal Media Group in Kenya titled "When Journalists Become Victims," he noted that those on the front lines of the violence had no resources or knowledge of where to go and what to do to get psychological help.

I spoke with some of these journalists on Feb. 21 when they gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to participate in a videoconference co-sponsored by the State Department about the emotional impact of covering violence. The session began with the usual pleasantries, followed by a brief overview on post-traumatic stress, which I delivered from my Washington, D.C., location.

The journalists then were invited to share what they had endured during this tragic period in their country's history.

For a few moments, there was deafening silence. Then a TV reporter calmly began relating the brutality he witnessed during an uprising in a Nairobi slum. He described a man with his hands chopped off and other shocking images. He talked about the pain of reliving the horror: first when he returned to the newsroom and had to brief his editor, then again when he was producing the story.

"At the end of the day, there are some things that will haunt you," the reporter said. His colleagues around the conference nodded in agreement.

One after another, the journalists described scenes that "were like a war movie," as one of them put it.  Ali Rehan, a reporter for Pamoja FM radio station, located in a sprawling Nairobi slum and run on a sparse budget by volunteers, told of certain groups "butchering guys at night" where he lived. Did he fear for his own life? "That's my home; I have nowhere I can run," Rehan said with a shrug.

Rehan's experience highlights the dilemma for journalists covering conflict in their homeland. Events often are taken out of their control and their choices are limited. And that, says Laurie Anne Pearlman, the president of the Trauma Research, Education, and Training Institute, Inc., is the central dynamic of psychological trauma.

"It isn't as if they were sent to cover the war in Afghanistan. This is happening to them, to their families and communities. They are victims at the same time they're being called on to do a kind of reporting that is not their choice," says Pearlman, who has worked on peace building and trauma recovery in Rwanda since 1999.

For trauma survivors, there often is a sense that the world has changed and will never be the same. That perception is only amplified by civil conflict, where home, neighborhood, bonds of friendship or family can be abruptly shattered. Even if these journalists go back to a normal routine, they will carry this experience with them, said Pearlman.

For many Kenyan journalists, the danger has been highly personal and terrifying.

Paul Ilado, political news editor for the Nairobi Star, received anonymous messages saying he would be beheaded and giving details about his home and car after he wrote a story in January about 10 NGO leaders forced to live in hiding for fear of reprisals. His plight and that of other journalists drew attention from international media monitors.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders issued a plea for Kenyan authorities to quickly identify and punish those responsible for death threats to Ilado and other prominent Kenyan journalists. Some were threatened hours after Melitus Mugabe Were, a newly elected opposition legislator, was dragged out of his car and gunned down near his home.

Three groups — Article 19 headquartered in London, International Media Support based in Copenhagen, and Reporters Without Borders — sent a fact-finding mission to Nairobi to investigate the successes and failures of Kenya's press corps during the turmoil. They addressed a pivotal question: "Did the country's media fail in its mission as watchdogs of democracy?"

Their final report noted that growing pressure on freedom of expression by state officials and the media's own fear of exacerbating violence and ethnic divisions dominated the behavior of journalists, who firmly chose restraint in their coverage.

Some of those interviewed by the mission felt the media had failed to do their job. David Makali, editor of the monthly newspaper "Expression Today" and director of the Media Institute in Kenya, was an outspoken critic.

Makali believes newspapers should have set up investigative teams to find out who had won or lost the election. They failed to do so, he said, because they feared being physically attacked by either the government or the population. Another blunder: not defying the government's live broadcasting ban, issued soon after hostilities flared.

The report concluded that with no experience in covering such unprecedented violence, Kenya's editors and media owners were easy prey for the government, which exerted heavy pressure to relay messages of peace and reconciliation at the expense of real news. Fear of making things worse obsessed some journalists, who remembered the deadly role media played in drumming up the ethnic hatred that led to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

During the February videoconference, some common threads emerged from the journalists' revelations, shedding light on their state of mind in the wake of the violence. It was clear from their detailed descriptions that they had been deeply affected by witnessing atrocities in their once-stable country. Many were wrestling with horrific images that had been embedded in their psyches. They also expressed angst about the toll on journalistic standards.

Fairness and balance became more difficult as traumatic incidents accumulated. In some newsrooms, loyalties broke down along ethnic lines, adding to confusion about what should or should not be reported. The journalists in attendance appeared to find comfort in knowing that they were not alone and that there were those on the outside who cared about their emotional well being.

In the days after the videoconference, some continued the dialogue via email. One of them was Ann Ndungu, who covered what she described as "normal stories" for the Kenya Times before the crisis.

The district in the Rift Valley where she resides is home to the famous Maasai Mara game reserve, among others. Tourism, education and health were common assignments. The changes in her professional life were stunning.

Ndungu described people hacked to death and maimed; property vandalized and reduced to ashes. In the midst of the mayhem, she had to flee for her life with others singled out for their ethnicity.

"I was one of the targeted tribes — I am Kikuyu. And as I am a journalist, many people in the area knew me. I really felt my life was threatened," she wrote in a Feb. 28 email. "I have now shifted to Nairobi where it's much safer . . . It was really traumatizing to know that this happened to my country and there was nothing much I could do to save the situation."

Once, she never would have thought of leaving her homeland, but "I am no longer sure of that," she said. Ndungu reads books on how to live positively in hope of discovering ways to cope.

Some journalists became emotionally paralyzed as they tried to do their jobs. In Musa Radoli's column, "When Journalists Become Victims," he told of a photojournalist returning to the newsroom without photos after he had been assigned to cover violence in Nairobi's Kibera slums.

When his editor asked what he had seen and where the pictures were, the photographer responded, "It was terrible. It was horrible. I have never seen anything like that. It is unbelievable. I have no pictures. I did not take any. It was too much." As they talked, the editor realized the photographer had nearly become a victim himself.

"None [of the journalists] had been prepared nor had they ever been trained on how to handle and cope with such situations," wrote Radoli.

Help for Kenya's press corps has been mobilizing in recent months. International Media Support is spearheading a drive to provide post-election trauma counseling to 150 journalists nationwide. A leading psychologist from the University of Nairobi is organizing counseling sessions; the secretary in the Ministry for Information and Communication has spoken publicly about the need for intervention. From talking to the journalists, it's clear the help is sorely needed.

Heminigiler Mugeni, an announcer for Nairobi's Radio Umoja, remembers the exact moment of her meltdown. On Jan. 29, the first stories she read on the air were about murder, rape and crowds on the run. Then her editor handed her a breaking news bulletin.

A freshman member of Parliament had been assassinated. Suddenly, she burst into tears. "And trust me, I was on the air. I could not finish reading the bulletin. My boss was so mad because the news was sponsored by a leading company in the country," Mugeni wrote in a February email. He moved her to the weekend news.

On April 8, while rival political factions continued to feud, Mugeni sent a follow-up message: I am so happy. I got my job back. I now read the prime time news again." Mugeni was concerned that more violence loomed on the horizon. "You need to put Kenya in your prayers," she said.