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How media bungled outcome of Uhuru’s China trip

Kenya’s mainstream media last week failed a couple of important tests: one, original reporting on the outcome of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trip to China; two, how to write clearly on what happened there.

Let’s skip the furore about the President’s alleged failure to secure some Sh368 billion in controversial loans to extend the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Naivasha to Kisumu. Reporting on what Kenya actually got was muddled.

We looked at five different online news reports on Friday, April 26 by the Nation, the Standard, the Star, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and Capital FM.

All carried startlingly similar headlines. Three carried the exact same intro. And all failed to clarify what exactly Kenya got from China.

While all five headlines stated that Kenya got Sh67 billion, the Nation wrote that China gave Kenya the money. That was misleading. You’ll see why in a bit.

The Standard’s headline said, “Kenya signs Sh67 billion deal with China for Konza Project, JKIA expressway.” It was the more accurate headline of the day. But the body explained nothing about the financing.

The Star, KBC and Capital FM wrote shockingly copycat prose.

On the one hand, all three headlines said Kenya “secures” Sh67 billion. On the other hand, the intro left no doubt about the uniform absence of original reporting.

All three wrote this intro: “President Uhuru Kenyatta today [KBC said Friday] witnessed the signing of two project delivery agreements totaling to Sh67.5 billion through concessional financing and Public Private Partnership (PPP).”

No kidding. They said the same thing. Word for word. Can anybody think of any plausible explanation for this, besides that all three may have lifted this text, verbatim, from some prepared press statement?

But wait. This apparent “lifting” was not the worst failure of journalism.

A more curious thing happened in three strange words, repeated by all five media houses. They all said that the President witnessed the signing of “project delivery documents.”

None thought to tell readers what “project delivery documents” was in plain English. And the ensuing public chatter betrayed the large confusion that the media threw open.

Practically all subsequent audience responses in written comments, social media and radio chatter mistakenly took it that while the President failed to secure the previously touted Sh368 billion for the SGR, the country got Sh67 billions in loans for Konza and an expressway in Nairobi.

How? Well, Kenyans already equate any mention of China money with debt. The media’s failure to explain the new facts reinforced this unintended fallacy.

A day after the bungled news story, on April 27, a random exchange under economist David Ndii’s twitter handle clarified the matter.

@DavidNdii: This was said by a senior Chinese official last week (paraphrase): Corruption is not the biggest challenge in your country, we have big corruption in China too – biggest problem is your leaders do not care, and it’s such a tragedy because you have everything else going for you.

@chothep: This was beyond accurate. I hope the “denial” of the loan will mean they getting tough on our marauding leaders who globe [sic] world capitals seeking personal deals.

@geogias: But they got over 200B. Didn’t see where they were denied loans.

@DavidNdii: Really? How did I miss that?

@geogias: 67B for Konza city is one such

@DavidNdii: Check your facts. They signed PPP concession to build JKIA-Westlands viaduct (Sh51b) and Sh17b MOU with Huawei to invest in Konza (assuming Konza is built). Both are Foreign Direct Investments, not loans.

And God said, let there be light! So much for the “project delivery agreements” mumbo jumbo that all media fed the country.

Two more things. A) China did not give away money, as the Nation’s headline might have misled readers. B) Somebody at the Star, KBC and Capital FM should look up the word, “secure” in the dictionary. Reuters attributed it with, “the President’s office said on Friday.” Our local news houses, which clearly did little journalism outside the “press statement,” definitely misled readers.

*************

And now to the story that was not written: how did the country start chattering that Uhuru and his handshake counterpart Raila Odinga were going to China to get billions of shillings in loans to extend the SGR to Kisumu? Who fed the media a story about an agreement that was not yet an agreement? And why did the media buy the whole kit and caboodle? Look, either the country’s top communication officers just went through a week of spectacular incompetence or somebody orchestrated a deliberate, devious setup to embarrass the President and his entourage to China.

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