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Tob Cohen: When you break a murder story stick to facts

The thing about breaking a murder story is that even what you think you saw could be so wrong. Things that you swore were there could be just not there. “A” could be “B.” And “C” could be, well, never existed.

So it may be with the Standard’s lead story last Saturday, September 14, “It was murder.”

Facts are stubborn. You may recall that when former President Daniel arap Moi’s Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko was in 1990 found dead at Got Alila, his body still smoldering in a slow fire, a bullet hole in his head, his ribs broken and, laid by his side, a discharged pistol, a matchbox and paraffin in a jerry can, the government pathologist’s conclusion was never murder.

No, Dr Hason Kaviti said that Ouko had managed to shoot himself in the head. Then, he broke his own ribs. He poured paraffin all over his body and lit himself up. Then, well, he somehow managed to arrange all the evidence neatly on the ground, before lying down to burn like nyama choma. Suicide, they said.

So, whom do you think you are to make all those unequivocal conclusions about Tob Cohen before the government pathologist has spoken?

The Standard story by Kamore Maina and Allan Mungai said matter-of-factly that a body fished out of a septic tank last Friday in Nairobi’s leafy suburb, Kitisuru, was that of the millionaire Dutchman Cohen who had been missing for seven weeks, according to press reports.

One, who told you it was Cohen’s body they found? The widow’s lawyer Philip Murgor already asked this question, as reported by KTN Friday night. Murgor should know. He’s a former director of public prosecution. The Standard forgot to tell us that the body had been positively identified. And by whom.

Two, it’s always too early to decide in breaking news that you know the whole story.

Paragraph 3: “The Saturday Standard can now reveal how the gruesome murder of the 71-year-old was plotted and executed.” This is presumptuous. Later facts are almost guaranteed to come and bite.

Three, when reporters start planting suspects on a crime scene or, worse, insinuating they are guilty, credibility tanks.

Paragraph 6: “Some 18km away, his wife, now a main suspect in the killing could face murder charges.”

Paragraph 29: “Cohen’s wife, Sarah Wairimu Kamotho, is facing murder charges.”

That’s fine. But which is it, the widow could face murder charges or is charged with murder?

This is just bad writing. But that’s beside the point.

Paragraph 9: “Implicated by authorities is Cohen’s wife and five other suspects […].”

Paragraphs 10: “Investigations show that the plot to kill Cohen was hatched three months ago […]. A close relation [of Cohen] had a pressing matter and needed to be dealt with some finality.”

Media reports say that Cohen had filed for divorce.

Paragraph 11: “[a divorce – the Standard calls it “end or relations”] would mean a drastic change in lifestyle for the relation.” The Standard means, the widow.

Paragraph 15: “A down payment of Sh40,000 was then made via Mpesa to the four killers still being sought.”

There. The guilty are decided. Evidence is interpreted. With finality. Never mind that the reporters can’t count – is it four or five suspects?

Was the Standard reporting an independent investigation or regurgitating a police narrative?

Sloppy reporting and writing aside, the thing about shouting from the rooftops that it is murder, and deciding in breaking news who is the murderer, is that the press may well put justice on trial. Defense lawyers can convincingly argue that there’s no way their clients could get a fair trial because they have already been tried and convicted in the public gallery, presided over by the media.

Going by Murgor’s Saturday press conference, the defense is ready to build a case in the public opinion about conspiracy and planted evidence.

And media is becoming suckers in a complex chessboard. Heck, the defense already said as much, that the Director of Criminal Investigations is indeed using the media to lay out its case that the widow is guilty.

What ought media do in breaking news? Resist the temptation to enthrall with a sexy narrative. Do not write innuendoes or feed a conspiracy theory. Whatever you do, do not attempt to interpret the facts. Just lay out the facts — as you see, taste, touch, smell and hear them. The truth may take a while.

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