Kenya’s incursion into Somalia was historic. This was the first time the country ventured into war since its independence from Great Britain in 1963. Kenya, in the words of columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo, lost its “political virginity” and became “a true Great Lakes nation.” Somalia and its interminable problems, long a thorn on the side of Kenya’s government though much less a concern to ordinary citizens, burst into the national psyche in the broadcasts and on the pages of the national media.

The Kenyan press took up the conflict as a matter of national responsibility, giving it extensive coverage. Then two weeks into the war, the Kenyan Army invited journalists from various media houses to join them on the battlefront in Somalia, and off they went, giddy, unsure, bundled in helmets and flack jackets.

What I would like to believe is that this experience has allowed the Kenyan media to shed some of its own innocence, but I fear that it has not been a right of passage to greater maturity. It is not too late, however, and, at risk of sounding old-fashioned, I hope that Kenyan journalists will consider this essay when they are next dispatched on an assignment of such national and historic importance.

Credit where credit is due

To give credit where it is due, the Kenyan media got it right in some cases. Analytical pieces in newspapers like The East African newspaper highlighted some of the underlying reasons for the war. The media fraternity was also mindful of the stakes for Somalis in Kenya, highlighting how their businesses were being affected by the war, and warning that citizens should not be victimized on account of their ethnicity. Larry Madowo, in a piece published in the Daily Nation newspaper, termed the negative profiling of Somalis and Muslims as “idiotic.” Abdinasir Amin , a medical researcher, was also given space in the same paper to describe the “pain of being a Kenyan Somali.” Amin eloquently challenged those who would question the national loyalty of Somali Kenyans, arguing that terms such as the “enemy within” and the “fifth column” were unhelpful and irresponsible at a time of war.

The media also performed its watchdog role in some instances, most prominently among them the sinking of the MV Nawal in the Indian Ocean. The media revealed that the Kenyan Navy had mistaken the crew of the boat to be members of al-Shabaab, and that in the assault four innocent fishermen were killed by the Navy, while five others were forced to swim for six hours until they landed on the shores of Ishakani off the Kiunga coastline.

Unfortunately, not all of the coverage rose to these standards.

Willfully ignorant

The embedded journalists’ coverage from the frontline cities of Ras Kamboni and Afmadow was disappointing, to say the least. It was a far cry from the high expectations of the public. The dispatches were intellectually vapid, while explanatory journalism, which is crucial in a time of war, was lacking. Kenyan journalists failed to depict the bigger narrative, or to examine the political and socio-economic endgame of the military incursion.

Even senior reporters who were embedded, with whom I later spoke, displayed a shocking lack of knowledge about Somalia, its history and its people. The simply could not hold an intellectual conversation on the country.

This parochialism was also showcased in the daily snippets published by the Nation’s two reporters, who were in the frontline in Somalia for 20 days. The two were incapable of offering their readers anything beyond their immediate surroundings, and flaunted their lack of knowledge as though it were humorous, as in this snippet:

“Apparently, Ras Kamboni, Ras Aliyoos and the other ‘Ras’ in Somalia, have nothing to do with Rastafarians. Instead they mean protruding gulf.”

In another instance, an article claimed that the cameramen in the crew had learnt the Somali word fiiri to mean gentleman from one of the locals. The word, as all Somali speakers would know, is a verb that means ‘to look’ and is neither a noun nor means ‘gentleman.’ Gentleman in Somali is mudane. As it turns out, the reporters didn’t have an accompanying translator, which raises questions about the veracity of other dispatches.

Cardinal sins

But more importantly, senior editors back home committed some of the cardinal sins against accuracy and truth in journalism.

During the first few days of the war, the media carried a story of ten towns that the Kenya Defence Forces were eyeing for a possible assault. The reports listed Baidoa and Baydhabo as two of the ten towns whose activities were being monitored, claiming that they hosted al-Shabaab bases. The irony here is that the two towns are the same; the only difference being that Baidoa is the English rendering of the Somali name Baydhabo. It appears news editors simply picked the town names from the Twitter account of Major Emmanuel Chirchir, the spokesperson for the Kenyan military.

Another error appeared on the front page of the Daily Nation of November 12, 2011. The paper carried a map of Somalia to illustrate some of the strategic towns in the military offensive. The map put the town of Afgooye next to Baardheere. Baardheere is the capital of the Gedo region and is located next to the Kenya-Somalia border. Afgooye on the other hand is located 30 kilometres outside Mogadishu, and is nowhere near Baardheere, as the map suggested.

Furthermore, the Kenyan media’s picture of Somalia and Somalis was skewed and ill-informed at its best, and dismal at its worst. In television clips and news articles, Somalis were portrayed as a hopeless, hapless and helpless lot ravished by famine, drought and terror. Somalia, on the other hand, came out as that distant exotic nation that has long, beautiful beaches, where pirates rivalling Jack Sparrow roam the high seas, and where ordinary folks have suffered under the menacing rule of warlords and hard-line Islamists for over 20 years.

“There was little to hope for before Kenya military entered Somalia”, one lead-in a local newspaper even read, simplifying – in one fell swoop – a complicated, multi-layered story of a country that has been warring itself for over two decades.

And then there was the tone of the coverage, which veered at times towards chest-thumping jingoism. The Standard newspaper’s headline on November 4, 2011, for example, read: “Spirits High as Navy Kills 18 Shabaab.” Was it not sufficient to report the killing of the insurgents? We risk dehumanizing ourselves when we celebrate the death of an enemy.

Our unique responsibility

Of course, journalists, like any citizens, are stakeholders in the country’s national security. The Kenyan military’s incursion into Somalia affects us all, and is as much about protecting our borders and sovereignty as it is about eliminating a regional and international threat. There should be no doubt that al-Shabaab’s threat needs to be dealt with, and promptly.

However, as members of the press, we have a more complicated task at hand. Ours is to follow the old-age wisdom of objectivity and fairness, and to hold the executive accountable. We should be the voice of reason at this time of chaos, and stand as impartial witnesses to history. Unlike any other moment, journalists should demonstrate sensitivity and deep understanding of regional politics, and should guide the nation in a soul-searching dialogue.

But how can we do this if we can’t master the basics of accuracy and verification – if our research is limited to a Google search, if even that.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Foreign Correspondent, an American reporter is sent to Europe to cover the growing threat of a war and the rising power of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. After chasing spies, pursuing assassins, and crashing into the ocean after being shot by a German destroyer, the movie climaxes with a radio announcer introducing the reporter, Huntley Haverstock, on radio. “We have as a guest tonight, one of the soldiers of the press,” the radio presenter says, adding that Haverstock is “one of the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth.”

As the army of historians writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth, our reportage, at this critical time, should reverberate long after the guns have fallen silent.