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Unethical practice: NTV report on suspects’ names displayed publicly in Meru

NTV aired a story on the evening of Wednesday, June 16, that should have alerted the public that something strange was happening in Meru County.

Only that that the station didn’t expressly say it was out of the ordinary, save for its title, ‘Majina ya wezi paruwanja: Wahalifu wa Meru waanikwa wazi’ (Names of thieves in the open: Meru criminals exposed).

During its 7pm news in Kiswahili, reporter Margaret Kimathi took us to Kianjai market in Tigania West sub-county where we were shown posters bearing names of suspected criminals. They were posted – for maximum public display – on electric poles and other open spaces. Viewers were told that businesses and traders at the market had, for long, suffered losses and bodily harm in the hands of criminals. It was time to adopt a new strategy for addressing the problem and, with it, repair the name and image of Kianjai.

The A-4-size white posters headlined ‘Thieves (wezi) terrorizing Kianjani Location Residents’ had names of suspects against their alleged areas of operation, and were toasted as the harbinger for peace to the market of more than 2,000 traders.

Kianjai market vice-chairman Simon Thuranira was interviewed, summing up the problem: “Wengi wameumizwa. Wengine wamenyang’anywa pesa zao. Na sasa, serikali imechukuwa mkondo wake, upande wa serikali. Na wakaona hii maneno imezidi. Na upande wa administration wakaandika majina ya wale ambao wanadhania ya kwamba ni wezi.

Next was Reuben Mathere, a Kianjai resident whose home – the reporter told us – had been attacked more than twice, with the thugs stealing his chickens and wife’s clothes. “Hapa area hii, [hawa wezi] sio wageni, sababu wageni hawawezi kujua vile watu wanakaa. Yule mtu amekuja amejua hapa iko kuku, mbuzi na ng’ombe.

Another Kianjai trader said the local community resolved to deal with the problem and hoped the new strategy would bear fruit: “Tukakaaa chini tukaongea. Na hao wakora wameandikwa wako. Ni wakora na ni vijana wanasumbua. Hiyo mbinu itafanya wajue wamejulikana. Itafanya wahame hapa ama warekebishe.”

Kianjai chief David Nabea explained why something had to be done to return normalcy: “Wanabishara walikuwa wanalala kwa soko. Watu walitoroka kwa maboma. Lakini tulikuja tukaweka mikakati, timu yangu ya assistant chiefs wane na mimi. Tukahakikisha saa hii biashara iko vibrant. Watoto wa Meru University wamekuja wengi.”

Margaret Kimathi signed off by appealing to Kianjai business folk – who had ditched the area because of insecurity – to return to base.

This was a good story, but had several legal and ethical loopholes, most of which could be handled by the reporter at the scene.

One, the names pasted on public places were those of crime suspects. We are not told when, where, and for what they were convicted, if ever. Where was the presumption of their innocence?  Pray, what happens if any of them moves to court to clear their name? It requires no guessing that such personal legal effort would not spare NTV and the reporter who had the opportunity to ask relevant questions of the area chief and the other accusers. It is instructive that the administrator did not say exactly who compiled the list of the suspects, only offering that they “instituted some measures”. The reporter should have shifted the burden of proof to the two traders who alleged the compilation was done by the local administration (say, chief’s office). There was no prodding to this end.

Two, the ‘List of thieves (wezi) terrorizing Kianjai Location residents’, we were told, had names of known people within the area. Why didn’t the reporter strive to get one (or more) of the suspects to fetch their side of the story? What process was followed before settling on their names? Was there evidence linking them to incidents of thuggery in Kianjai market and its surroundings? And what if it turns out that the list was a result of witch-hunt among sworn village or clan enemies?

The NTV story – save for the likelihood of being defamatory to some of the suspects – suffered from the single-story syndrome and failed to meet a number of journalistic ethical expectations, including accuracy and fairness, integrity, and opportunity to reply.

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