Last week’s terrorist attack on Riverside 14 in Nairobi and related raids elsewhere in Kenya in the past, media coverage and treatment of violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism are under the spotlight again.
Have any lessons been learnt over the period and has the handling of such attacks by the media changed positively? Yes, there has been improvement by the media, and by extension how the government, handled the situations, though a few challenges remain.
Information flow from the government and engagement with the media improved, and journalists were more responsible and professional in handling the situation.
There was minimal tension and conflicts between journalists and the security personnel. There was understanding and co-operation between the two sectors, especially relating to allowing operational and strategic interventions implemented with little media exposure.
The first day had challenges, and live broadcasts of the crime scene delayed security operations, but this was immediately rectified through quick communication to the teams. Remember, some arrests have been made because of media exposure of the suspects and car that was used gave members of the public the opportunity to recognise and report.
As has always been the case before, live broadcasts during terrorist attacks, especially focusing on the crime scene, showing operational step by step details, interviewing survivors and holding pressers at the crime scene, have been the biggest challenges, as they give the suspects a huge platform and free publicity.
Recent studies have demonstrated that terrorists select targets that can generate maximum publicity by holding local and international media’s attention for the longest possible periods of time. This was hugely minimised.
The improved performance by journalists is an indication that they are now more conversant with laws on national security and freedom of expression than before. The media is more alive to the professional requirements when dealing with crime scenes.
Given, the bombed area was a crime scene, when journalists were requested by the security team to move some metres away to allow operations, and minimise focusing cameras on the target areas, the media obliged.
This minimised tensions at the scene, and did not compromise the safety of the officers and hostages. This is one area where we did very poorly during the 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attack.
There was balanced reporting generally on the event and related, with media, this time minimizing speculation and sensationalized reporting.
While, a lot of misinformation and propaganda was doing rounds on online platforms, including the enemy’s circulation of alleged casualties, journalists failed to the swallow the bait and go with the figures and waited for official figures from the authorities.
This obviously has challenges, as people claimed this was not the way to go, but the media had to pay the price of trusting in reliable sources. There is a possibility of government manipulating figures, but without contrary evidence, the media went with the government figures. Save for the New York Times, the media avoided using photos of bodies, badly injured survivors and generally horrifying images from the scene.
The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya requires that the media should avoid presenting acts of violence, armed robberies, banditry and terrorist activities in a manner that glorifies such anti-social conduct.
Also, newspapers should not allow their columns to be used to encourage or glorify social evils, warlike activities, ethnic, racial or religious hostilities.”
Lessons learnt for journalists from the attack include: the journalists’ job is to tell stories using best international standards and best practices, many of which are based on the most essential of journalism ethical standards such as accuracy, impartiality, fairness and balance while others have grown from an increasing awareness of the tenets of conflict sensitive journalism.
Journalists are third parties and they should understand that there are always those who will try to control news content to their benefit.
Victor Bwire, Media Council of Kenya.