BWIRE: Analyzing media coverage of 14 Riverside terror attack


Cars are seen on fire at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at ...
Cars are seen on fire at the scene where explosions and gunshots were heard at the Dusit hotel compound, in Nairobi, Kenya January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The terrorist attack at 14 Riverside Drive in Nairobi and related spates of similar attacks elsewhere in Kenya over the past, media coverage and treatment of violent extremism, radicalization and terrorism is on the spotlight again.

Have there been any reasons learnt over the period, and has the handling of such by the media changed positively?

Yes, there have been improvements by the media, and by extension how Government has handled the situations, though a few challenges remain.

Information flow from the Government and engagement with the media improved, and journalists were more responsible and professional in handling the situation.

There was minimal tension and conflicts between journalists and the security team. There was understanding and cooperation between the two sectors, especially relating to allowing operational and strategic interventions implemented with little media exposure.

The first day had challenges, and instantaneous live broadcasts of the crime scene delayed security operations, but this was immediately rectified through quick communication to the teams. Remember, some of the arrests have been made because of media exposure of the suspects and car that was used, giving members of the public the opportunity to recognize and report.

As has always been the case before, live broadcasting during terrorist attacks, especially focusing on the crime scene, showing operational step-by-step details, interviewing survivors and holding pressers at the crime scene, have been the biggest challenges, as they give the suspects a huge platform and free publicity.

Recent studies have demonstrated that terrorists select targets that will generate maximum publicity holding local and international media’s attention for the longest possible periods of time.

Because of the global reach of the modern day news media and the emerging phenomenon where the more salacious the ‘better and bigger’ the news, an incident of a terrorist group holding hostage or shooting people in Nairobi becomes instant international hit on all the world’s major news channels. This was hugely minimized.

The improved performance by journalists is an indication that they are now more conversant with laws on national security and freedom of expression than before. The media is more alive to the professional requirements when dealing with crime scenes including terrorist’s attacks, including national security laws.

Given, the bombed area was a crime scene, when journalists were requested by the security team to move some meters away to allow operations, and minimize focusing cameras on the target areas, the media obliged. This minimized tensions at the scene, and compromising the safety of the officers and hostages. This one area, we did very poorly during the Westgate attack.

There was balanced reporting generally on the event and related, with media, this time minimizing speculation and sensationalized reporting. While, a lot of misinformation and propaganda was doing rounds on online platforms, including the enemy circulation figures of alleged causalities, journalists failed to swallow the bait and go with the figures, this time largely waiting for official confirmed figures by the authorities.

This obviously has challenges, as people claimed, this was not the way to go, but media had to pay the price of trusting in reliable sources. There is a possibility of government manipulating figures, but without contrary evidence, media went with government figures.

Yes, media save for the New York Times, avoided use of bodies, badly injured survivors and generally horrifying images from the scene. A few cases are recorded of broadcasters using inciting and insensitive language, but were asked to stop. A number of stations apologized.

In addition, there were attempts to interview hostages, exposing their hideouts, and spread of suspect contact numbers to share location information, but this was discovered and stopped.

The Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya requires that the media should avoid presenting acts of violence, armed robberies, banditry and terrorist activities in a manner that glorifies such anti-social conduct. Also, newspapers should not allow their columns to be used for writings which tend to “encourage or glorify social evils, warlike activities, ethnic, racial or religious hostilities.”

Lessons learnt for journalists from the attack include; the journalists’ job is to tell stories using best international standards and best practices, many of which are based on the most essential of journalism ethical standards such as accuracy, impartiality, fairness and balance while others have grown from an increasing awareness of the tenets of conflict sensitive journalism.

Journalists are third parties and they should understand that there are always those who will try to control news content to their benefit. Journalists must be aware of the phenomenal consequences their reports may produce despite pressures of accuracy, deadlines, objectivity, and even patriotism.

Journalists must also ensure that the basis of any story they pursue is solid information and facts rather than simply the emotional side that conflict can bring out in all of us.

Journalists should always remember to be safe including when positioning, wear protective gear, fair and accurate and ensure to keep the identity of any victims concealed until the situation has been resolved or their names have been released by the authorities.

Media should not provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators, avoid publishing false statements, rumours likely to cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace.

The writer works at the Media Council of Kenya, and is a certified Journalists Safety Trainer.

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