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Dear reporters, do not interpret evidence. Just report

Not even a prosecutor is allowed to testify against a suspect in court. Witnesses do that. A good prosecutor presents the evidence. Then, the evidence speaks for itself. Reporting the news is further away from this science. A reporter who tries to interpret evidence leans on the scales, practically testifying for or against a suspect. That is not our business.

Citizen TV reporter Hassan Mugambi slipped into this unfortunate situation on September 4.

In the ongoing investigation into the recent fatal shooting of car dealer Kevin Omwenga, 28, in which a Nairobi businessman and his bodyguard are now charged with murder, Mugambi’s Kiswahili reporting during Citizen Nipashe Wikendi skidded way past the runway and landed into a ditch, practically convicting the bodyguard.

The bodyguard already told police, according to media reports, that Omwenga’s death was an accident, following a scuffle as the bodyguard tried to retrieve his boss’s handgun from Omwenga, who wanted to show it off to a girlfriend.

The court is a long way from determining the case.

Reporting on fresh developments, however, Mugambi said that Citizen TV had secured CCTV footage that “uniquely shows” how the bodyguard took and later returned his employer’s handgun from an office safe.

A video of an office setting comes on-screen. The reporter narrates that at 6:22am on August 21, the bodyguard is seen entering the Meriton Group offices and approaches his boss’s desk. The bodyguard picks what looks like the keys to a safe, the reporter says.

“Tazama jinsi anavyochukua bunduki na kuiweka tayari […],” Mugambi narrates, as the infographic draws a red oval around the purported bodyguard. This is where ethics starts to slide. The audience is being led by the chin.

The footage continues to roll.

“Baada kuuawa kwa Omwenga, tazama [bodyguard], ambaye sasa amevalia koti nusu, anavyoshughulika bila ya kuingia kwenya gari hili, lililompeleka Omwenga hospitalini.”

Again, the audience is being led in one direction. A man is dead. The bodyguard is not bothered, the report insinuates.

Then, another video angle comes on-screen.

“Kamera hii ya nje inamnasa [bodybuard] akielekea katika jumba jirani la Senteu [Plaza…], makao ya mwajiri wake.

Pay attention to the choice of diction. The English translation for “nasa” suggests “kukamata,” arrest, following “mtego,” a trap.  So, the camera does not show; it “captures” or “arrests” the bodyguard in a trap.

At 11:42 pm, the reporting continues, the bodyguard returns to the office. The video shows an office scene similar to the one in the reported early morning clip. Again, a red oval is drawn to mark the picture of a man whom the reporter says is the same bodyguard. He picks up a set of keys and returns his employer’s handgun, the reporter says.

Then this: “Katika kile kinachoonekana kama kuficha ushahidi, anaonekana akiongeza risasi. Anarejesha bunduki na kuondoka ofisini humo.”

There, we’re off the rails! We’re into assumptions, not facts.

The bodyguard is then reported to have hopped onto a piki piki that dropped him at Kilimani police station, where he was arrested.

The whole episode contradicts the bodyguard’s statement that he shot Omwenga by accident, the reporter says, before plunging in all the way with this: “Iwapo ni bahati mbaya, kwa nini alirejesha bunduku na kuificha kabla ya kuelekea kituoni?

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, this is interpreting evidence. This and leading questions tip the scales toward a guilty verdict. In the audience’s mind, the reporting has decided the case. Guilty!

Look, reporters are not forensic scientists. Neither are they lawyers.

Journalism should do no harm. Just like a good lawyer presents evidence that’s able to stand on its own feet in court, good reporting presents the facts to the public. Just the facts.

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