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Unverified claims and false attribution in ‘lawyer’ Brian Mwenda story


The Brian Mwenda case captured the nation’s attention. He had allegedly presented himself as a lawyer for over a year, displaying remarkable confidence in his legal endeavours. In media coverage of this case, two significant issues emerged: The presentation of unverified information as fact and the false attribution of a comment to Martha Karua by a leading newspaper.

Unverified claims

Early in the Brian Mwenda case, it was alleged that he had an impressive record of winning all 26 cases he had taken. The source of this information remained unclear, but the claim found its way into various media outlets. While some acknowledged it as an allegation, others presented it as an established fact. For instance, on NTV’s “The Trend,” though the show isn’t primarily a news programme, some panelists discussed the 26 court wins as undisputed truth.

This claim, understandably, gained widespread belief among Kenyans and was further amplified by certain international media. The claim posed a significant challenge to practising lawyers, as it led to widespread criticism in online discussions. People questioned the quality of Kenyan lawyers if a layman could win all his court cases against qualified lawyers. The Law Society of Kenya president and other lawyers denied the claim, emphasising the lack of factual evidence to support it. While the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily disprove the claim, the fact that the claim was challenged by credible sources means more could have been done to verify it.

Media’s role

Media plays a crucial role in providing accurate information and uncovering the truth in matters of public interest. While verifying the number of cases Brian Mwenda allegedly won might be time-consuming, limited effort was made to seek out this essential information. Ideally, Brian himself and senior LSK lawyers could have been asked to clarify this issue and records sought from the Judiciary to verify it. When reporting unverified claims, media organisations should explicitly state that the claim lacks verification and refrain from perpetuating unconfirmed narratives.

The virality of the Brian Mwenda story meant that false information could spread faster than any subsequent corrections, potentially leaving a lasting false impression. This has the potential to damage the reputation of the media in Kenya, especially in a case like this where the claim was further reported by international media.

False attribution

As prominent figures expressed support for him, a parody Twitter (X) account impersonating Martha Karua posted a tweet in support of Mwenda. The tweet declared the intention to sponsor Mwenda’s legal education and praised his confidence. The parody account was clearly labelled as a fan account and had a much smaller following of 3,000 compared to Martha Karua’s real account with 1.6 million. Despite these unmistakable differences, The Star newspaper published an online article attributing the claim to Martha Karua herself. They even promoted the story on their social media platforms.

Karua is a prominent politician and seasoned lawyer, and given the heated debate this case caused, such false attribution could be quite damaging. The newspaper rectified its mistake after Karua’s response to the article where she demanded the article be pulled down and an apology issued, or she would take legal action. While the article was eventually pulled down, the false attribution to Karua had already spread further through other social media users. The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya requires that journalists write fair, accurate and unbiased stories on matters of public interest. This reporting was not just inaccurate; it was false.

It is essential that media organisations verify the stories and information they publish. When reporting unverified information, a cautious approach should be taken, and clear disclaimers issued. In the era of rapid spread of information, damage done by spreading inaccurate information may be impossible to correct.

Media organisations must therefore raise their standards for accuracy. Instead of just relaying differing statements, a more informative approach would involve in-depth investigation to uncover the facts or, at the very least, a clear acknowledgment that a claim lacks factual support.

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