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New Year resolution: No regurgitation of official canard, do independent journalism

Cheti Praxides knows Lamu like the back of her hand. She is the Star reporter in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and global tourist destination.

Cheti knows every village and footpath in Lamu. She files captivating reports on culture, education, fishing, tourism, prostitution and human trafficking, and al Shabaab terrorism along the highways, in Boni Forest and villages on the Lamu-Somalia border.

Without a doubt, Cheti would have no problem identifying a terrorist attack. She has covered many on the island. On Sunday night, January 2, six people were butchered in Lamu West. Cheti knew it was a terrorist attack and reported it as such. The next day, a man delivering miraa on a boda boda was blown up by an improvised explosive device.

Thus began 2022 in Lamu on a bloody note. Cheti’s reports should have made the front page of her paper. But in Nairobi, the media bosses were engrossed in the Uhuru succession, so the Lamu killings did not topple Raila and Ruto from the top news perch.

Not even after Interior CS Fred Matiang’i imposed a dusk-to-curfew for 30 days on 13 locations in the county and designated them “disturbed areas”. On January 7, the day Raila’s birthday celebration received live TV coverage, a gang slaughtered four police officers in Lamu, bringing the death toll to 11 in the first week of the New Year.

Witnesses told The Standard the attackers launched a rocket-propelled grenade on the police vehicle from a forest. The incident took place almost on the same spot where Public Works Principal Secretary Mariam El-Maaw was attacked in 2018, the paper reported. The PS died three months later in South Africa.

But for unknown reasons, the government reframed the narrative about the killings from suspected terrorist attacks to violence over land. The media was happy to go with this version. “Land disputes linked to Lamu violence”, the Nation headline said on January 6, p.8.

Yet Cheti’s filing and other early media reports on the killings made no mention of land. Nor could the bombing of a police vehicle be convincingly linked to clashes over land.

On January 6, Lamu County Commissioner Irungu Macharia told NTV reporter Kevin Mutai in a live interview that security agencies suspected the killings “revolved around land”. What land issues?

“Residents said more than 30 heavily armed men raided the village around 10pm”, the Nation reported. “The gang razed houses as it fled into Boni forest, where a military operation against Al Shabaab has been going on for years”. Is that what you would describe as “clashes” over land or whatever?

Every journalist in Lamu and Kenya’s other terrorism hotspots ought to be alert in January. Al Shabaab militants have notoriously launched attacks this month. On January 5, 2020, terrorists overran a camp at Manda Bay in Lamu, killing three American soldiers.

On January 15, 2019, Al Shabaab gunmen raided DusitD2 hotel in Nairobi and killed 21 people. The battle for El Adde in which an unknown number of Kenyan soldiers were killed in Gedo, Somalia, happened on January 15, 2016.

Apparently taking this trend into account, the UK government on December 30 issued an alert that Al Shabaab were likely to strike “at any time”.

But Kenyan news consumers spent the first week of the New Year unsure whether the poorly reported killings in Lamu resulted from terrorist attacks or land issues – even when 10 suspects were arrested and were said to be investigated for “commissioning terrorist-related acts and being members of a terror group,” as NTV reported.

But it is not just the Lamu killings that underline the need for independent news reporting. Can you believe that a ship docked at the Port of Mombasa carrying 30,000 metric tonnes of oil but no reporter saw it?

“Oil marketers are up in arms over alleged illegal importation of 30,000 metric tonnes of petrol by a group of industry players,” the Daily Nation reported on January 5, p.36.

“They said the cargo, allegedly shipped in during the festive period season, may see other marketers run out of stock and lead to higher fuel prices once Sh100 million ($1 million) in additional charges incurred is passed over to Kenyans”.

The entire story running into 17 paragraphs was based on a protest letter written by oil marketers on December 31 to Petroleum PS Andrew Kamau and widely quoted in media reports.

No reporter from all the media houses that carried the story saw the ship offloading irregularly imported oil at the port. They all relied on the letter by oil marketers. The photo Kimathi Street used for the story was of an oil tanker offloading its cargo at Kipevu deport on November 13, 2019.

Independent journalism means reporters getting off their seats and going out to see things for themselves. Reporters must know whether the killings in Lamu are terrorist attacks or arising from land disputes. Waiting to reproduce a press release about questionable importation of 30,000 metric tonnes of oil is dereliction of the duty of a watchdog.

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