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January 20, 2019

Media Must Re-Evaluate Itself After The Westgate Attack

Armed with a laptop and an internet connection, scores of Kenyans suddenly fancy themselves security experts with far better knowledge of how to execute a hostage rescue operation than security forces.

In the last few days since the Westgate Mall attack, Facebook and Twitter have been ablaze with these newly found security experts giving their unsolicited input on how rescue operations should be carried out and who deserves to be blamed for dropping the ball.

Tasteless Twitter posts from alleged Shabab operatives have been seized upon and rebroadcast as evidence that the security forces were bungling the operation badly and trying to keep this fact secret.

Official government statements on the same forums have been brushed aside as lies only for the same wannabe experts to inquire a couple of hours later, where is Kimaiyo (Inspector-General of Police), where is Ole Lenku (Cabinet Secretary – Internal Security)? Why aren’t we being told anything?

When told anything, the response has been to dismiss it and offer their own versions of what they think is going on prompting the IG to issue constant warnings against spreading false information.

Indeed, events of the past few days perhaps explain why many countries have an Official Secrets Act to keep sensitive security information from irresponsible hands.

Now that the siege is ended and finger pointing has begun, it is important to get a few things clear.One, Kenyan security forces are not clueless village louts whose worldview is limited to one or two ridges and valleys in the reserve.

They are actually trained to contain and stamp out insecurity; have gone to good schools here and abroad, and many have actual combat man hours in places like Baidoa, Mogadishu, Kismayu and so on; far deadlier theatres of conflict than a mall under siege.

So it is inconceivable that, fired up by images of a cordoned-off Westgate Mall and unreliable chatter on social media, one would have had a better idea of how to handle the siege than a meeting room of experienced security agents.

So, no, you would not have done it better and while the security forces will learn from this operation and adjust as appropriate, Kenyans must also look into their own conduct during the same period.

The show of solidarity, fund-raising and blood donation efforts were all inspiring, and we salute our brothers and sisters for this togetherness of purpose.

The careless handling of information however, was not only deplorable but quite possibly destructive.

I want to focus on mainstream media and ask, is our media equipped to cover the big story?Luckily, we have reference points – the international nature of the story mean it was covered by media outlets globally.

By most accounts, the international media showed far superior coverage of this story with the biggest gap in standards being seen on television.

For starters, our local TV stations were content to run continuous commentary from their studios for close to two hours with the occasional phone interview with a reporter on the ground.

Even when they got reporters on the ground, they did little to offer a growing narrative with the reporters on ground also running commentary and observations as to what they thought was happening.

It took forever for anyone to interview those escaping from the mall to establish just what was going on, not one single person asked government officials if they had been able to establish contact with the attackers and the periodic recap of events as they had unfolded so far was missing the entire first day.

But what I found most egregious was the blatant defiance of a police advisory, by media to stop airing live images of the Westgate happenings.

Cheered on by the aforementioned crowd of online experts, TV stations not only continued to show live happenings but even spoke about their right to show Kenyans what was happening.

What is emerging, is that in so doing, televising the arrival of different security contingents, these TV stations may have aided the terrorists by giving them up to the minute intelligence on what was happening outside showing even the caliber of equipment and numbers of security forces arriving.

Further, even if the terrorists were not near a TV, their accomplices outside, for they could not have been acting in a vacuum certainly were watching TV and could communicate this information to the attackers.

Which then raises the question, beyond the mechanics of covering a big story with national security implications which we clearly showed we need to work on, do we have the ability to navigate the ethical and duty of care issues around such a story?

Even without the IG’s request not to air live images which TV stations ignored, could not news directors and editors make the call to quit televising what might be compromising to a national security operation.

As one Sky reporter said, once when covering a story they realised they might be aiding terrorists, they stopped the live coverage.

These are issues that media bosses need to mull over.

The other issue though not as pressing, is the face of the big TV story.

Another contrast one would have noted between our TV stations and international ones, is that while almost all station here have young men and women in their 20s anchoring the big story, in foreign media, it is almost always older, more mature people who have the necessary field experience covering such stories, the necessary sources and certainly the composure and disposition to tell a tragic story to living rooms full of worried mothers, children, fathers, sisters and so on.

This, again, our media must think about.

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