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Hongera AJEA laureates, now will other scribes jump out of the rut?

On February 13, 1991, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga called a press conference in Nairobi where he announced formation of the National Development Party. The Kenyan press carried no accounts of Jaramogi’s bombshell, until three days later when the Weekly Review reported the announcement.

The Weekly Review editor-in-chief, Hilary Ng’weno, would have won an award for courage for merely reporting Jaramogi’s press conference. That was a dangerous editorial decision. Kenya was by law a one-party state under the Moi dictatorship. Forming a political party to rival the Kanu monolith was unconstitutional. The media was under intense state pressure to give Jaramogi and his ilk a blackout. Ngw’eno thrust his finger into, er, the thingy of a leopard. Multiparty democracy returned to Kenya at the end of that year.

A quick overview of Kenya’s media history doesn’t reveal any other time reporting on a press conference could have won a journalist an award.

So, 33 years after Ng’weno’s brave act, why should a journalist be awarded for a news story based on a press release by traffic police warning rogue matatu crews that they will face the full force of the law? Or a report based on a press conference in Maralal where local politicians decried rising banditry and blamed the government for inaction? Or an exclusive interview with a CS who asked people stuck with their blankets and sufurias in floods to move to higher ground?

Where is journalistic courage, rigour, research, originality, creativity or impact in such boilerplate reporting?

To be sure, these hypothetical stories concern important issues that good journalism ought to dig into and bring to public attention the true picture of the problem, voices of the victims, failures of duty bearers and what should be done. But left at the level of a press release/conference/exclusive interview, they constitute conveyor-belt reporting that is the bane of our journalism.

That’s why the winners of the Annual Journalism Excellence Awards of the Media Council of Kenya are a special breed of scribes. Pedigree journos. They are the best among us. They showcase journalism at its finest in delivering its constitutional mandate and public expectations. The winners are beacons of excellence. Hongera!

Whether AJEA or the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to journalists Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines, all award-winning stories have one thing in common: they are brave ventures off the beaten path. They are the work of indefatigable, driven journalists who go the extra mile often at some risk.

In a way, media awards are a rejection of run-of-the-mill journalism. They are a clarion call to every scribe to try harder, to strive for excellence.

As far as we know, no one has won a journalism award yet for reproducing a press release or a media briefing. That’s not to say press releases and conferences are unimportant. They are useful in many ways for journalism. But they will never represent the cream of professionalism.

Awitugeza? Maybe not. So, here is a striking example. The People Daily published a story titled, “Medics flag Mediheal hospital over unethical transplants” (May 6, p.2). Three medical associations want the Eldoret-based private hospital immediately closed and investigated for conducting kidney transplants that violate medical ethics.

The hospital could be involved in the sale of kidneys and importation of patients to get transplants, the story said. “According to the doctors’ professional bodies, evidence gathered over the past two years from donor testimonies and recipient accounts suggests significant ethical breaches including exploitation of vulnerable donors from local communities.”

This is huge, ama aje? The PD story was entirely based on a statement by the Kenya Renal Association, Kenya Association of Urological Surgeons, and Kenya Association of Physicians.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press, do you think this reporting does justice to this story? Top medics are accusing a hospital of harvesting kidneys from poor members of the local community and selling these organs to foreigners. This is not just unethical but illegal.

But PD did not even bother to contact the hospital to respond to these shocking claims, as required by the Code of Conduct.

This important story starts and ends with the medics’ statement. Nothing more. No further effort from the reporter and his media house.

Sadly, many similar stories are published daily. And people are still unsure why some journalists win awards while others never will?

Every story is potentially award-winning – if you are ready to do the hard work. Hongera, AJEA laureates!

See you next week!

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