The 17 January episode of Kilio cha Haki highlights the plight of about the 5,000 families being pushed off their ancestral land in Taita Taveta by a sisal plantation.
Contrary to what some observers might say, there are journalists in Nairobi who are dedicated to producing locally relevant news that eschews elite bias or sensationalism.
Still, doing this kind of journalism in the mainstream has unique and telling challenges.
Francis Luchivya has spent the better part of his long career as an advocate of “voice of the people” journalism. Though he’s best known for his role as host of Radio Citizen’s morning show, Jambo Kenya, two of his other projects at Citizen better represent his long-standing commitment to the wananchi.
Ajenda ya Maguezi (The Reform Agenda) has taken Francis to more than 70 towns across the country to host live-to-air town hall discussions about local and national political issues, while Kilio cha Haki (A Cry for Justice) is a short weekly segment running now for three years that brings to light an injustice somewhere in the country.
Both shows have succeeded in winning some accountability from officials. Local politicians, who sometimes attend Ajenda, have made promises and, occasionally, amends. Crimes have been investigated, and even prosecuted. Corrupt officials have been sacked or charged. Some of the issues raised may seem minor, but reflect larger issues, like a patient who had been at Kenyatta Hospital for 48 hours without being attended to by a doctor. The show’s broadcast ended his wait.
“It’s just a platform that wananchi can use to get something done,” Francis said.
The successes of both these shows are enviable, to the credit of Francis, his partner Lincoln Njogu, and others on the Radio Citizen team. Yet, as pioneering examples of independent journalism, they also highlight the difficulties inherent in doing something that responds to local perspectives.
Ajenda ya Maguezi was Radio Citizen’s response to Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, which ushered in a series of radical legal changes, including the most significant decentralization of the government to date. Over the years, it has attracted funding from donors such as UNDP who have seen it as a good platform to educate people on the new dispensation.
Swahili speakers from across the nation tune in on Saturday afternoon to listen. If the audience reflects the make-up of those who attend Ajenda meetings (which logically they would since the meeting are publicized on Radio Citizen) then they constitute a vitally important segment of society: the national middle-class, and not just those in Nairobi. And regardless of their class, consider for a moment that these are the people living in the counties who choose a Swahili station over a vernacular one.
The irony is that some of the same people in Nairobi who bemoan the lack of independent journalism – some of them leading members of civil society – don’t tune in to Ajenda. In fact, we know from audience surveys that upper middle-class Kenyans don’t tune into radio, at least not beyond the commute (this explains why Francis Luchivya has only 378 Twitter followers).
In this sense, the local story, grassroots journalism, has a glass ceiling with which to contend. Or perhaps the only away to rid your journalism of elite bias is to rid your audience of elite viewers.
Kilio cha Haki was Francis’ idea. Between Jambo and Ajenda, he was frequently receiving information about injustices. He asks the 11 million listeners on Jambo for ideas for Kilio cha Haki and is vigilant for story ideas on Ajenda trips. Kilio, though, has a precedent. Citizen formerly had a show entitled Wembe wa Citizen (Citizen’s blade), which used to shame political leaders. It was one of the reasons President Moi temporarily shut down Citizen. But Kilio’s focus on local issues, rather than political celebrities, and its higher quality of reporting distinguishes it from its predecessor.
This show illustrates another serious challenge to local journalism, and perhaps also a dose of skepticism to the believers in citizen journalism.
Francis receives about 10 SMS messages each day, through Radio Citizen’s corporate account, with viable stories for Kilio. But these stories need verification. And while the crowd has been shown to provide its own verification in events with a critical mass of information, these events are invariably small scale, and often of concern to those on the other side of the digital divide. There is no substitute, in other words, for old-fashioned reporting.
Local correspondents, however, are few, and sometimes unreliable; only a hitherto unprecedented amount of resources and training could resolve this issue. Francis and his team can only investigate so many. And often, it’s difficult to get the audio he needs. People may be willing to share an example by SMS, but are often unwilling to have their voice heard on national radio.
All of this to say that even at a media house that’s willing to run local, independent content, and even with a journalist who’s dedicated to this kind of work, there are still questions of who will talk, who will capture their voices, and who will actually listen.