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Of Gusii lawyers bloc support for Omwanza and blot on ‘Star’

In the run up to the Law Society of Kenya elections on February 29, The Star provided the most incisive coverage of the candidates with back-to-back profiles.

The leading candidates for LSK council as well as for the Judicial Service Commission slot were given a good chance to explain their manifestos and put up their respective cases before The Star readers, their voters and Kenyans.

They delved deep into the issues afflicting the legal practice in the country; corruption in the bar and the bench, the unresolved legal practice bottlenecks, the shrinking rule of law, and the apparent growing irrelevance of the society to a section of senior lawyers, to name but a few.

The Star’s good run with the LSK coverage was however interrupted by a major contraction of an article 10 days to the poll headlined; “Shot in the arm for Omwanza as Kisii lawyers back bid for JSC job” complete with the kicker, “Group’s 4,800 lawyers to vote as a bloc in elections slated for Thursday next week.”

If you thought the “Kisii” reference in the headline referred to County No.45, or the town, you were dead wrong. Without much ado, the intro confirmed your worst fears that the competition for the leadership of one of the most elevated professions the world over, had gone tribal, full blast:

Lawyers from the Abagusii community have thrown their weight behind Omwanza Ombati’s bid to become the next Law Society of Kenya’s male representative to the Judicial Service Commission as campaigns enter homestretch,” the intro read.

The basis for the story was that weekend’s “relaunch” of the “Gusii Advocates Forum” which was attended by both Omwanza and his chief rival, the outgoing LSK president Eric Theuri. Both gentlemen addressed the forum, speaking to the issues in their campaign but The Star report said, “it was clear where the Kisii advocates will cast their ballot given the cheering that greeted Omwanza.

If that was not enough to fling the cat out of the bag, advocate Danstan Omari’s quote in the story did. The voluble lawyer was quoted saying, “We have regrouped, re-strategised and made a renaissance that we have a voice to be heard given our 4,800 votes.

No Abagusii advocate will give their vote to a stranger when our own son needs it,” Omari declared.

National Assembly Majority Chief Whip Sylvanus Osoro, a lawyer, made a rather feeble attempt to denounce the tribal card, saying they would not be voting for Omwanza because he comes from the Abagusii community but because he is the most competent and sober of all the candidates.

But even that fell flat as The Star carried the picture of a club-clutching Omwanza, who was also quoted in the story, being lifted high by elated lawyers at the event. There was neither a picture nor a quote from Theuri, his chief competitor.

For a country which nearly paid the ultimate price for tribal mobilisation, one would have hoped The Star editors would be more sensitive to such retrogressive political mobilisation strategy.

Granted, the event in Kisii might have had all elements of a tribal gathering given the description of the events of the day, from the cheers Omwanza received, the speeches and the shoulder-high treatment.

But The Star editors had a choice on the kind of headline to accord the story, the quotes to include, the balance to strike, and the pictures to accompany it. For instance, it would have been good to quote Theuri at the forum, or even show a side picture of his reception.

Instead, The Star chose to swallow the tribal bait hook, line, and sinker, and to make no pretences about it.

Such conveyor-belt journalist died and was buried many years ago. The journalist of today has far greater responsibilities than the one of yesteryears of “he said, she said… he added, she reiterated.”

Section 3 of the Code of Conduct for Practice of Journalism in Kenya requires all practitioners to present news with integrity and common decency, and to respect the dignity and intelligence of the audience as well as the subjects of news.

Further, Section 25 expressly forbids quoting of persons making derogatory remarks based on ethnicity among others. Arguably, lawyer Omari’s quote saying the community’s lawyers would not give a single vote to any other person other than Omwanza defied this rule.

Postscript: Advocate Omwanza Ombati eventually won the JSC race with 3,357 votes against Theuri’s 3,292, a difference of 65 votes. It is not clear yet whether the 4,800-strong Gusii Advocates Forum voted as a bloc.

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