“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I don’t bring mine to work.” reads one of the promotional advertisements by NTV, quoting Linus Kaikai, the station’s Managing Editor. It’s a bold statement that aims to convey the impartiality and professionalism of NTV journalists and the station.
But are they for real? Is it true that personal opinion and beliefs are not reflected in the work of journalists? Is it true that journalists are impervious to the political fervor and tension that gripped the nation? Are journalists only guided by the pursuit of truth and never compromised by tribal loyalties that influence many other professional environments in Kenya?
Take for the example the March 4 elections. During the campaign and the dispute over the tally, journalists were smack bang in the middle of the story. That the election and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling divided the country is not in doubt – and newsrooms were not immune.
This was a stressful time for journalists: working long hours, travelling up and down the country, facing tight deadlines and irate editors. Throughout this, many – not all, but many – kept their personal opinions and political frustrations to themselves.
“You have to adopt your journalistic persona like you’re taking up another character,” said one journalist, speaking anonymously. “You have to be someone else.”
Any journalist can tell you that this charade is emotionally draining. While the public has its catharsis, debating the politics of the day and championing their candidates, a Kenyan journalist can feel – ironically – silenced. Being a journalist in Kenya is like living in a country where you’re not free to express your views.
And the editorial process reinforces this feeling. Our personal prejudices – intentionally or otherwise – do sneak into the stories we produce, but editorial controls usually sift out our political prejudices.
It’s no wonder then that social media has been received by some journalists as a great liberator. Unedited and uncensored, journalists can now take to blogs, Facebook and Twitter to participate in the mucky debates that enthrall their fellow citizens.
Newsrooms in Kenya may have tried to implement policies to guide journalists on the professional ethics of social media, but judging from the election experience, some journalists believe that the authority of the newsroom does not include their Facebook wall.
This is why we need a discussion now about whether journalists should profess their political opinions publicly.
We Kenyans love politics. More than rugby or football, politics is our national pastime. It’s foolish to think journalists don’t share this passion. I spoke to several colleagues as I was writing this article; all confessed that they have strong political convictions, including clear preferences amongst political parties. It would also be undemocratic to begrudge them for it. A journalist, like any citizen, has a right to vote, which implies a right to hold political preferences.
This brings us to the perhaps unsatisfying and frustrating but inevitable condition of Kenyan journalists: hold your views, but hide them publicly.
As one journalist told me, “ I have a political position, I strongly believe in it, but because of my profession I limit expressing these views in public.”
Increasingly, journalists and media observers point to examples in the US, where media houses publicly endorse political candidates with transparent reasoning. Would this pragmatic approach help journalists to be comfortable with proclaiming their political views?
In my opinion, journalism should be guided by the political environment in which it operates. In Kenya, the tribal lines are still too close to the political ones. Reporters are sometimes judged by their surnames and not by the quality of the story they write; in such a sensitive environment, journalists need to sacrifice their ‘right’ of opinion for the sake of protecting the perception of objectivity.
To be perceived to be objective also assures journalists of their security. Many journalists have been attacked and received threats for their political opinions.
It feels like some kind of political exile, but as journalists we have no option in Kenya but to profess the facile line by NTV’s Linus Kaikai, “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I don’t bring mine to work.”
For the time being, the only way to ensure the integrity of the Kenyan media is for journalists to keep their political views firmly locked in the closet.