Over a week ago, Kenyan authorities deported Jamaican-born Muslim cleric Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips, invariably demonised by the media as a “radical”. The Qatar-based preacher was scheduled to meet Muslim leaders and address an education conference in Nairobi. He was ordered back on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Dr Bilal was deported because the government considers him a security threat to the country. But Muslim leaders, including politicians from the Coast, protested the expulsion.

“It is shocking that someone of Dr Bilal’s calibre, the uncontroversial preacher respected worldwide, can be treated in the manner he was treated on Wednesday bearing in mind that he once visited Kenya in 2009 and his sermons were of great benefit in fostering good understanding and forging closer relations between Muslims and non-Muslims”, the Muslim Human Rights Forum said.

Interestingly, Dr Bilal went on to address Muslims in Nairobi over Skype. The power of communications technology!

“I advised against any violent demonstrations which may cost the loss of lives over this minor issue,” he was quoted in international media as saying. “I further advised the Muslim community to take the necessary steps to combat ‘Islamophobia’.”

“I also reminded the community that malpractices and unwarranted violence on the part of Muslims have also contributed to the global stigmatisation of Muslims and Islam. Thus, proper knowledge of authentic Islamic teachings is necessary to combat these deviations and to put Muslims back in a position to contribute positively to the world community.”

That doesn’t sound like the tongue of a “radical” Muslim preacher, or does it?

Well, what exactly is the truth surrounding this man’s expulsion from Kenya? Whose story do we believe about the deportation of Dr Bilal: the government’s or Muslim leaders’?

A neutral, alert watchdog should have tried to tell Kenyans who Dr Bilal really is and whether his deportation was justified. What did the government have against him? That watchdog is, of course, the media.

Dr Bilal has been denied entry into some Western countries. Was it on that basis that Kenya acted against him, or did the authorities have more concrete reasons touching on national security? If the latter, have the local Muslim leaders who Dr Bilal is in touch with been questioned by the security forces? Why didn’t the government stop the speech Bilal delivered via Skype if the man’s preaching could indeed endanger our security?

But, unfortunately, the Fourth Estate, other than merely reporting the deportation of the “radical” Muslim preacher, largely ignored the bigger story. Now Kenyans don’t know whom to believe between the government and Muslim leaders.

But The Bulletin suspects that most Muslims do not have this difficulty. They are likely to have accepted their leaders’ interpretation of the whole saga: that there were no good enough security grounds to deport Dr Bilal.

What would stop Muslims from thinking that they are being persecuted by the state because of their religious beliefs? Who would blame them for seeing this as yet another instance of official Islamophobia? Would they be wrong to conclude that even the media has aligned itself to the state against Muslims?

Can anyone imagine a situation where a visiting foreign Christian cleric is deported and the media gives the saga scant attention? The matter would most likely receive saturation coverage.

Let’s admit it, press conferences called all over the place by the men and women of God prophesying fire and brimstone on Kenya would get maximum exposure. There would even be live TV coverage of processions of Christians cursing the government. Public prayers would be held around the country in support of the cleric.

But not when it is about a Muslim preacher. Or even a Muslim human rights activist like Al Amin Kimathi who spent a year in a Ugandan prison over allegations of involvement in terrorism, only to be released without charge!

The reason for this indifference is simple. Ever since the West launched its global war on terrorism, Islam has more or less been conflated with terror – even in the media. The most glaring violations of the basic freedoms of Muslims can always be justified on grounds of national security.

As a matter of fact, it is the primary duty of the government to guarantee the security and peace of its people. The state does not do this out of goodwill. Citizens pay for security as a common good.

And as we well know, terrorist activities have mostly been perpetrated by certain extremists invoking the name of Islam. But great care must be taken not to stigmatise a world religion and not to profile and persecute its believers in the name of national security.

The war on terrorism cannot be won without involving Muslims. But how does the state hope to secure the goodwill and active collaboration of the majority of peaceful Muslims when it is perceived to be unfairly targeting the whole faith group already?

A case like that of Dr Bilal, if not handled sensitively, could easily worsen the sense of grievance among Muslims and stoke radicalism. Remember that every religion has both moderate and extremist segments among its believers.

The media does not help matters by giving fleeting attention to the concerns of Muslims, or by seeming unconcerned in the face of apparent violation of basic rights of Muslims.

By far the best news coverage of Muslim issues in the Kenyan media is found in the Star newspaper – in-depth reporting and analysis are, of course, lacking across the board. But most reports in the Coast section of the Star are about Muslims. Yet Muslims elsewhere in the country outside the Coast do and say important things that deserve media attention.

We run a real risk of worsening the feeling of exclusion and persecution among Muslims in Kenya. A ‘persecution complex’ is what partly feeds religious extremism. It is very dangerous.


Interrogating ‘development’

About a month ago, the Star newspaper carried a short news report about plans by the Catholic Church to build a huge, multi-million-shilling water project in Meru County. The dam will supply thousands of households and institutions with water for domestic and other uses. The church is already fundraising locally and abroad to finance the project, the Star reported.

A church official or two offered justifications for the project. We hoped the Star would ask their writer to do a comprehensive and analytical report on the proposed project. We are still waiting.

What will the project entail in terms of local resources? Whose land will be used? Who is expected to benefit and how? What will be the environmental and livelihoods implications of the project for the people living around it? And so on.

Those are important questions. We in the media need to understand that mega-projects put up by governments or other actors in the name of ‘development’ are rarely without serious consequences for people living in those areas. It is now an established fact that not every ‘development’ project actually brings development. Ultimately, development is about people, not impressive projects.

There is plenty of development literature about projects particularly in the ‘third world’ that have been harmful to the local people, especially the poor. We will cite just one example.

The Ethiopian government, which last week you heard will be exporting electricity to Kenya, is building what will become the biggest dam in Africa on River Omo. The Omo flows for nearly 1000km and drops 1,600m from its source to its end point in Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which lies wholly within Kenya.

The Omo basin has great hydropower potential and already Ethiopia has built two dams on it. The third dam, called Gibe III (Gibe is the other name for River Omo), will be 240m high, the tallest in Africa. It will cost Ethiopia $1.7 billion.

Gibe III will double Ethiopia’s current generating capacity, which will then greatly exceed domestic demand. It is planned that up to 50 percent of the electricity generated will be exported to neighbouring countries, including Kenya. Two more hydropower dams will eventually complete the Omo ‘cascade’.

But that is the end of the nice part. Studies have shown that Gibe III will have a massive devastating impact on the downstream population by regulating the highly seasonal flow of the Omo, thereby ending the annual flood. This will directly affect all residents of the Omo flood plain and delta – around 100,000 people – who depend on the flood for their agricultural and pastoralist activities.

Once the dam is completed, there will be no annual flood. It will now be possible to develop large-scale commercial irrigation schemes, which are planned to occupy over 200,000 hectares of the Lower Omo. That will mean displacing many of the people from their existing farmland and grazing areas.

Since the Omo supplies 90 per cent of the water entering Lake Turkana, irrigation on this scale will significantly reduce the level of the lake and increase its salinity. This in turn will adversely affect the livelihoods of another 300,000 or so people who live in northern Kenya and who depend on the lake for pastoralism and fishing.

Who then will be the beneficiaries of this ‘development’ project? The people with big money, of course (industrialists, commercial farmers, etc) – at the expense of hundreds of thousands of local people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

And ‘development’ projects like Gibe III are often touted as poverty alleviation strategies!

If you think the local people will benefit from the sale of electricity and large-scale commercial agriculture, then you probably know nothing about the curse of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Or flower farming in Naivasha, Kenya.

Another mindboggling project in Africa was unveiled last week by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. The Sh2 trillion Lamu Port is billed as one of the most ambitious infrastructural feats ever undertaken in Africa.

“Lamu Port is a blessing to the region”, Nation declared in an editorial. The massive project is expected to contribute hugely to economic development of eastern Africa.

But mentioned only in passing in the excited media coverage of the project last week are concerns about the environment and compensation of local people who will lose their land and livelihoods. Local human rights groups and community-based organisations have protested against the project in vain, as the government has reiterated it will ensure fair play.

The Standard merely listed those concerns (a detailed report on these was surely needed!): “failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment and mitigation plan, lack of community participation and consultation, threats to traditional nature-based livelihoods and the failure to recognise local individual, community and public ownership of land.”

“At the same time, the Lamu County Council Planning Committee refused to approve the project, citing lack of information.”

Are these minor concerns? If the governments that are implementing this project don’t want to listen to the local people, who is this ‘development’ project meant for?

It is for big finance. Small people can be ignored. Kibaki said the project has the support of “Comesa, the East African Community, SADC, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.” They are the ones that matter most? What about the fears expressed by the local people?

And the media doesn’t seem to realise that there is a serious problem here. Has the media also become part of big finance? Has it become complicit in the fraudulent rhetoric of ‘development’?


Which Press Freedom Day?

The Standard Group last week marked the sixth anniversary of the evil attack on its premises by state sponsored mercenaries to silence it.

As fate would have it, this year’s anniversary fell in the same week with the burial of Mr. John Njoroge Michuki, the man who, as Internal Security Minister, ordered, justified, sanctioned, blessed, or at least should have known in advance about, what is arguably the worst attack on media freedom in Kenya.

As has become a tradition at SG, the Mombasa Road-based media house organised a day of reflection on the extremely important theme of media freedom.

That was laudable. The Bulletin joins SG in demanding that the government return all the equipment that its agents confiscated from the media house and explain to the people of Kenya who carried out the attack and why. It should also compensate SG for the losses suffered.

That would be justice. Government, contrary to the Michuki Doctrine, is not a snake. It is put together by the people and must be accountable to them. It has no other reason for being.

Back to the anniversary festivities. SG has, for lack of a better word, a peculiar way of doing things. On Friday, 2 March, The Standard ran an editorial titled, “Let’s water the tree of world Press freedom.”

“Friday is a birthday of sorts for members of the Fourth Estate. Termed World Press Freedom Day, it was established in 1991 by the United Nations General Assembly “to celebrate the fundamental principles of Press freedom, to evaluate Press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

And on and on it went… What was that editorial about? SG’s Press Freedom Day or the World Press Freedom Day? The latter is marked annually on May 3. And Standard editors know that.

“Many progressive nations have recognised Press freedom as fundamental human rights (sic) and on which all other freedoms can be safely anchored. Each year there is also a special theme for the day. This year the theme is New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies,” the editorial rumbled on.

Not a word about SG’s own anniversary! Did the paper want to appropriate World Press Freedom Day for its own interest, or did it genuinely confuse the two days?

A clarification is needed. The Standard must be accountable. It is the only way newspapers build their most important asset: credibility.

And then on Saturday, the paper carried a two-page spread about the anniversary. There were quotes and pictures of 14 SG journalists, yes 14, under the heading, “Threats to media and individual journalists from the mouths of the men and women who cover the world.”

Robert Wanyonyi, Esther Ingolo, Mohammed Ali, Kwamboka Oyaro, Katua Nzile, Lilian Aluanga….

They cover “the world” indeed.


Multi-media “patriotism” project

In a week when the spectre of ethnic violence reared its ugly head again in Muhoroni, the chairman of the National Integration and Cohesion Commission Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia made the astounding claim that national reconciliation is on course.

In an opinion piece in The Star, Dr Kibunjia said his commission has been successful in combating hate speech, as evidenced by the prosecution of three politicians, including an assistant minister, over alleged inflammatory remarks made during campaigns in the run-up to the referendum on the constitution in 2010.

The truth is that the case against MPs Wilfred Machage, Fred Kapondi and political activist Anne Nyagitha-Miller was thrown out of court on technical grounds. That case can hardly be cited as proof that Kibunjia and his people are hard at work.

In his piece, Dr Kibunjia never bothered to respond to widespread public concerns about the content of incendiary speeches delivered by politicians at the so-called prayer rallies. Or their opponents responding with similar venom.

Instead, Kibunjia announced yet another project on patriotism called ‘Kenya Kwanza Campaign’.

According to Kibunjia, the new initiative will be “a multi-media patriotism drive that seeks to promote national identity, patriotism and national values as outlined in the Constitution. All these efforts, and more, are aimed at making sure that Kenya never stares into the dark abyss it did in 2008 again.”

Good grief! How many more of these “patriotism” drives are we going to see? Months back, Mary Kamonye of Brand Kenya announced just such a campaign. We saw the deluge of “nitakuwepo” ads on TV and in the newspapers. What did the drive achieve?

People, we are losing money! Please, Dr Kibunjia, don’t talk about another “patriotism” project. Don’t. Just continue writing PR op-eds.


A lesson in composition

The KCSE results released last Wednesday showed that performance in English remains poor. A specialist in the subject interviewed by Nation attributed this to widespread use of that lazy linguistic mongrel called Sheng’ and the rise of social media, where no one attempts to use the standard form of any language.

A good example of bad English was in an editorial published by Nation on Saturday. Yes, Nation. The piece was titled, ‘Bad news in Aids fight.’ The editorial started thus:

“The revelation by the National Aids Control Council that more that Sh300 million meant for Aids programmes have been returned to the Treasury is quite disturbing.”

The problem with this sentence, as grammarians would point out, is number. Money, no matter how huge the amount, always takes the singular form of verbs. So, it is “Sh300 million…has been returned to the Treasury”, not “have”.

The same editorial had yet another example of poor language use: verbosity. “Instead of disbursing funds to many disparate units, they should be consolidated and channelled though a few but effective units that can deliver.”

There are many redundant words in that sentence. Economical use of words is a great discipline in writing. Why waste words? It wastes a reader’s time and compromises clarity.

That sentence should have been edited to read as follows: “Instead of disbursing funds to disparate units, they should be consolidated and channelled through a few effective ones.” Five words less. It can even be better edited.

And a Standard story (March 3, 2012, p.4) started: “Her face coiled in anger as she followed the news bulletin in a local television channel.” Anyone seen a “coiled” face?

So you can imagine the kind of compositions kids write!


Quote of the week

And “last but not least” here is something the media in Kenya really needs to chew on. The Bulletin and others have pointed this out a thousand times already, but it bears repeating until the media gatekeepers begin to hate themselves for it:

“The press – print and electronic – acts as if Kenya belongs to 10 political leaders. You can’t turn on the TV, radio or read a newspaper without hearing or seeing the same 10 politicians. These people suck up all the oxygen in the country thanks to the press. The press doesn’t seem to know that Kenya has 37 million people.

“The press should pay attention to new faces in politics. Why keep on building the same tribal chauvinists who have nothing new to offer?”

That was Distinguished Professor of Law Makau Mutua, a columnist in the Sunday Nation.

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