KATANA: Local media denied al Shabaab publicity, New York Times failed us

Internal Security CS Fred Matiang'i and other senior government officials address the press at the DusitD2 hotel in Riverside after the terrorists were neutralized ending the two day siege. January 16, 2019. Photo/Jack Owuor
Internal Security CS Fred Matiang'i and other senior government officials address the press at the DusitD2 hotel in Riverside after the terrorists were neutralized ending the two day siege. January 16, 2019. Photo/Jack Owuor

Although Kenya has suffered numerous terror attacks in the recent past, three stand out as having attracted media attention the most. These are the 1998 bombing of the US embassy, which left 230 people dead and 5,000 others injured; the Westgate attack in 2013 that left 67 people dead and dozens others injured; and last week’s DusitD2 Hotel in Westlands, which according to official figures, left 21 people dead and several others injured.

These attacks may have drawn the attention of the media the most in part because they occurred in the capital, Nairobi, which houses over 1,000 foreign journalists and correspondents. The US embassy and the Westgate Mall attacks were a litmus test of the Kenyan media’s coverage on terrorism.

Before 1998, terrorism had been confined to the Middle East and some other countries outside sub-Saharan Africa.

In the two attacks, the media was blamed for providing undue publicity for the terrorists. Media houses were also criticised for publishing gory images and pictures of the dead and the injured.

In some extreme instances, journalists visited hospitals seeking interviews with the injured.

It was an extreme situation.

Media, however, covered the Dusit attack differently.

It has taken years of learning and expedience to adjust to this new approach.

As I sat watching the events unfold at Dusit, I feared the worst about the past; that for the umpteenth time, the local media would fight for space with security personnel and rescuers for the best pictures of the dead and the injured.

This didn’t happen.

It was a complex balancing act for journalists, who had to blend professionalism, national security concerns and interests, love for the country, and the quest from the public to get the real story.

In such a situation, journalists have wittingly or unwittingly, served as the spokespeople of the terrorists.

Professional factors should count.

Terrorists enjoy publicity.

Images of the dead, horrifying pictures of the injured, coupled with public anger, fear and grief, glorify terrorists.

They serve as a success story.

In her book, Terrorism, Betrayal & Resilience, former US ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell, observes that Osama Bin Laden, the former leader of the Al Qaeda, had personally chosen the US embassy in Nairobi as a target, in part, because it was headed by a female ambassador, whose death would provide more media attention.

Brian Jenks, an expert in terrorism, wrote in 1975 that terror attacks are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press.

Taking and holding of hostages increases the drama… Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims. “Terrorism is a theatre”.

Thus, by denying the al Shabaab the publicity they had anticipated from attacking the 14 Riverside Drive office complex where Dusit is, the media had deprived the group one of the most useful tools in public relations.

Beyond this, the media had throughout the attacks urged Kenyans to stand together against the terror group.

Repeat coverages of the Westgate and the embassy bombings were to be avoided.

The much-respected New York Times however, refused to pull down photos of the dead from the Dusit attack.

Edit Zach Montague argued that it was important to give their readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack.

For Montagne, the pictures were not sensationalised but they gave a real sense of the situation.

He then gave examples of the same approach the newspaper has had across the globe.

What the NYT editor did not mention is that when al Qaeda attacked the US in 2001 (9/11, as they call it), their media never showed any photos of the 2,977 victims, or even the pictures of the 6,000 others who were injured in the attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

In the Nairobi attacks, the New York Times was playing double standards.

But it was not only the media power that incapacitated the al Qaeda/ al Shabaab in terms of publicity.

Kenyans across the globe stood together to condemn the terrorist act.

Earlier, some of the Kenyans on social media had asked the New York Times to pull down the gory images it had posted on its sites.

For a moment during the attacks, political talk ceased, overtaken by the talk about terrorism, national security and the unity of the country.

One elderly woman wanted to know ‘why they hate us?’, meaning the terrorists.

I offered two answers.

I told her al Shabaab “hate” us because of the presence of our soldiers in Somalia, who went there in October 2011 to stop the terrorists’ incursions into our country. Two, because of the friendly relationships we have had with some Western states. I hope she had an idea why these people “hate” us.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the latest attacks, it is that it brought Kenyans together for the love of their country.

We may have criticised the media before, but this time round, they covered the attack well.

They rallied the nation together, even