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Sleeping watchdog: Where was media when hell descended on Kilifi?

Over 360 people in Kilifi County were reported missing and feared to be victims of a cult that had its followers starve themselves to death “to meet God,” various media have reported since mid-April.

For two weeks, the Kenyan media, in particular, has been saturated with this single story.

But when all hell was breaking lose in Shakahola village in Kilifi where was the local media?

All of a sudden, headlines can’t have enough of it. Talk shows can’t seem to find any other topic.

This single story squeezed air of every room. New words have emerged into the national lexicon: Shakahola, the crime scene; Paul Mackenzie, the cult leader, a former hawker turned doomsday preacher; Ezekiel Odero, the alleged millionaire fellow preacher to whom Mackenzie purportedly sold his church.

It has been a frenzy of activity. Mass graves, starvation, shock, gore, outrage… these have been the story lines.

In the rush to get the story out, even hilarious reporting hit the news.

Take The Star story on April 19: “Cult victim found alive after three days in Malindi grave”

Reporter Manny Anyango and her editors tied themselves in knots with colliding words.

What was that in the heading, a victim was alive – in a grave? Yup.

Intro: Homicide “found one person alive after exhuming a grave”.

Paragraph 2: The live person was dead, after all. “The body has been unearthed …, the story said.

Paragraph 3: “The death of […] four victims was announced on April 15 after starving for several days.” Who starved for seven days again? The announcer.

What in the world was The Star talking about?

Oh, never mind. Just skip to unanimous findings across the news media: by April 27 the body count had exceeded 90. Did so many Kenyans die and get buried in shallow graves in a forest overnight?

How is it possible that no one knew to raise the alarm? Why wasn’t this catastrophe stopped in time?

Various media outlets have documented stories of families whose victims retreated deep into Mackenzie’s forest of death. The stories detail concerns by those left behind at home, their doubts and futile attempts to reach their loved ones.

Don’t news channels have noses in villages anymore? And no correspondent sniffed any of this?

No doubt, the government has egg all over its face.

“You slept on the job, MPs tell trio,” said the Daily Nation in its April 27 headline.

The story by Samwel Owino said that Members of Parliament laid blame squarely on Inspector General of Police Japheth Koome, Director of Criminal Investigations Amin Mohamed, and National Intelligence Service Director General Major Gen Philip Kameru.

The same day, Citizen TV during its 9pm prime time news reported on how police neglected multiple complaints and tip-offs.

According to the story, the family of one Ruth Kadzo, reportedly a co-founder of Mackenzie’s Good News International church, reported to the police in Malindi multiple times that the preacher was veering off into cult activities.

“Nilireport pale Malindi, mimi personally,” Samuel Kapathe Kahindi, a family member, told Citizen TV. “Nilikuja tena nika report […]. My elder brother went there to report. Kuna wakati hata tulimchukua mama, aende akabook pia yeye… ili ionekane kuna uzito.”

Apparently, the police did nothing. But where was media?

Then, blame game from the highest office in Kilifi.

Asked on Citizen TV’s Newsnight April 27 where he was during the massacres, Kilifi Governor Gideon Mung’aro said:

“I had not even come to the office…. This matter started in 2019 when the controversial preacher started burning [school] certificates… But the activities in that forest baffle everyone, including myself….”

He added: “I don’t know. Maybe the security [agencies] when they finish their investigations they can tell us. […] But there must be somebody who knows.”

Oh yeah? And when did the governor first hear of Mackenzie? “When he got arrested two weeks ago,” he told Citizen TV.

New mass graves are being discovered daily. Has the governor visited Shakhala forest?

Answer: “Err, when they started, err, digging the graves, I was unwell. Err, I had err, an infection. So I could not, err, I was on, err, sick leave for two days, then I had to leave yesterday for the COG (a Council of Governors’ meeting).”

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.

That was the head of a government talking. Translation: Fellow citizens of Kilifi, you’re on your own.

Sure, it’s excellent journalism to call out leaders like the Kilifi governor.

Still, where was media when hell came to Kilifi?

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