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Did media miss the point in JIAM demolition story?

Maybe it is not necessarily in the interest of the media to ask some questions these days. But shouldn’t the media ask questions all the time? What happened with the Jesus Is Alive Ministries/Bishop Wanjiru and the Neno Evangelism Church/Pastor Ng’ang’a stories fell short of some basics in news coverage.

Whereas one would allow social media to deviate from the norm, seek to sensationalise news in order to attract readers or followers, and hardly bother to provide a context or crosscheck facts, the mainstream media is still called mainstream for obvious reasons. Millions of Kenyans rely on what the so-called traditional media report. Kenyans who consume news on social media still tend to crosscheck or confirm what is on mtandao with what the mainstream media reports.

The two church stories of Jesus Is Alive Ministries and Neno Evangelism Church, and their respective heads, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru and Pastor Maina Ng’ang’a, which happened in the past two weeks, are clearly public interest news. The government, through its agencies, alleges that the two pieces of land on which the churches are built were irregularly allocated to the current occupiers. It is reported that the land belongs to Kenya Railways. But does it?

From the reports in the media, it appears as if no journalist was bothered to crosscheck the claims by the two church owners that they own the land. Granted, the two preachers can be dramatic in their public pronouncements, after all one is a politician and the other is wont to speak in a style that could irritate, but they made public claims that their churches were built on land that is legally owned. Reports also show that there have been disputes surrounding these churches in the past. So, why is the media not following this past trail to try and report to the public the facts about the land in question?

Where would one begin in this case? Aha, there is the difficult question. Not really. There are many places to begin. Kenya Railways claims the land. Ask them to show evidence that they own it. The government of Nairobi City County should have documentation on land ownership. Definitely, there are files in the Ministry of Lands from which one can begin to piece together the history of the disputed land. Kenya Railways and the two churches can be asked to produce title deeds. The two documents can be validated in public offices.

But could there be a remote chance that the two plots in question are in the Ndung’u Land Report? There is hardly any public land in Kenya that was illegally or irregularly allocated that does not appear in the Ndung’u Report. Kenya Railways and the City of Nairobi owned and still own a lot of land. Some of this land was rented out, allocated to influential people, or simply grabbed. If it is being alleged that the two pieces of land in dispute were probably acquired irregularly, one might just find a reference to this in the Ndung’u Report. In fact, in reporting any case involving public land that might have been transferred to private ownership, the Ndung’u Report should be the primary reference.

Allegations of land grabbing are serious. Whether the land that has been illegally or irregularly acquired is public or private, there is always a need to offer the context. Background really matters. The mainstream media cannot report cases of land dispute without letting the reader know that there is a ‘story behind the story.’ JIAM and NEC could have been built on grabbed land. They could also have been built on legally acquired land. The two pieces of land in question could have been illegally or irregularly acquired many years ago and sold to the two churches ‘legally or regularly’, as happens in thousands of cases in Kenya where fraudsters provide seemingly genuine documentation to a prospective buyer. Yet the papers in question are fake.

Need we even talk about the famed web of deceit that surrounds land transactions in Kenya? Is it surprising that the media reported that apparently some government departments have built offices on private land, or on land whose ownership could be contested? No. So, the mainstream media should inform and educate its readers on land cases.

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