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21 gun salute or three-volley? Accuracy in reporting military funerals

In media schools, it’s often said that getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism.

A journalist must go flat out to ensure accuracy of their reports. An editor reviewing the story must satisfy themselves that the facts hold, and have the reporter cross-check them in case of doubts.

The danger with inaccurate reports is that they not only mislead but also cheapen journalism. There cannot be a worse time to publish inaccurate reports than now, when mainstream journalism is facing existential threats from all sides.

On April 25, Sergeant Rose Nyawira, one of the Kenya Defence Forces officers who perished in a copter crash alongside her boss General Francis Ogolla, was buried in Kagio, Kirinyaga.

A number of Kenyan media outlets and platforms reported that she received a 21-gun salute at her funeral:

“Nyawira’s coffin was covered with the national flag with her boots and a cap placed on top. They were later handed over to the family. She was accorded a 21 gun salute,” the Daily Nation reported.

“Nyawira was laid to rest at Kiamaciri village in Kagio Town in Kirinyaga County, Thursday, in a ceremony that adhered to military traditions including the 21 gun salutes,” The Star reported.

“Emotional farewell: 21-gun salute honours late Colonel Duncan Keitany at burial in Baringo County,” The Standard reported on April 27, on yet another burial relating to the same incident.

But did these officers actually receive a 21-gun salute? If their boss, the late General Ogolla received a 19-gun salute, how is it that they received a higher honour than him?

When he died in 2020, retired President Daniel arap Moi, a former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, did not receive a 21-gun salute. And neither did his successor, the late Mwai Kibaki. They both received a 19-gun salute.

Granted, journalists are not experts in military traditions and ceremonies. They do not have to be! And this is because they can easily fish out the information from the experts themselves.

Despite the fact that the shots were fired in their very presence, the journalists who wrote these stories as well as their editors ought to have known that the term “21-gun salute” is a term of art with a specialised meaning to it.

The best thing they could have done then was to defer to the wisdom of military officials. If the military officials are too uptight, as they are wont to, Kenya is not short of retired military officers who can provide the correct perspective on the gun salute.

Basic online research would also have affirmed that a 21-gun salute is the topmost military honour, often a preserve of a sitting President, usually fired off a “gun” in the strict military sense of the term. A rifle, in specific meaning and military parlance, is not a gun but a cannon is.

This is why the gun salutes for General Ogolla, Moi and Kibaki were fired off cannons, and not rifles, the latter which were available in plenty. A readily available online article makes an important distinction in this regard, introducing another form of salute; the three-volley salute.

“At military funerals, one often sees three volleys of shots fired in honour of the deceased. This is often mistaken by laymen as a 21-gun salute, although it is entirely different (in the military, a “gun” is a large-calibre weapon).

“The three volleys are fired from “rifles,” not “guns.” Therefore, the three volleys aren’t any kind of “gun salute,” a US Veterans website- run by Juniata County Veterans Council says.

The three-rifle volley is said to consist of no less than three and no more than seven rifles (not guns) firing three volleys in memory of a fallen colleague.

The fact that journalists who attended the burial ceremonies for these officers saw and heard 21 volleys (the maximum under the circumstance) does not amount to 21-gun salute in the strict sense of the term.

If anything, a diligent journalist who hears 21 shots fired out in honour of a junior, against the background of the 19 fired for a more senior officer, should set out to understand the protocol governing the gun salute.

They would then come to realise that what the 21 shots they heard fired off a rifle were in fact a three-volley salute, not a 21-gun salute. They would then educate the masses on this important military tradition with better accuracy than they would have done by relying purely on their hearing and seeing.

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