Kenya's journalists vie to make up for years without a free press

The country's journalists aren't wasting time getting to the tough questions or putting politicians and businessmen under a microscope.

Brendan Bannon
The controlroom at NTV, one of Kenya's leading news broadcasters.

This post is part of the Daily Dispatch project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

The red digits on the clock on the newsroom wall climb steadily towards 10:30 a.m. Guys in shirtsleeves thumbing BlackBerrys march past to meetings. Desk phones peal.

A plasma TV shows a smiling Kenyan politician spilling out of a shiny Mercedes by a smart office block 4,000 miles away in Europe.

He is one of six men accused by the world’s war crimes court of organizing election violence here three years ago. He and two others will appear before judges in Holland for the first time this morning.

It’s going to be a busy day for Robert Nagila, a news reporter here at NTV, one of Kenya’s leading television channels.

Bounding down the stairs, cameraman Steve Mwei three steps behind him, Nagila is heading to Nairobi’s tea shops, to watch Kenyans watch the proceedings, gauging what he calls “the mood of the people.”

A short dash across the city and we’re in Lowi’s Place, a fried food joint in downtown Nairobi. Customers sit glued to the television. Ekaterina Trendafilova, the court’s presiding judge, reels off the accusations – murder, forcibly transferring people, persecution.

Nagila’s there, on his feet, recording a piece to camera, before sitting to interview Ambrose Muga, Lowi’s owner. He barely pauses as a plate clatters to the floor in the kitchen. A dozen questions later, we whirlwind out the door.

Round the corner, a security guard bars us from filming an economics student Nagila spotted watching the court appearances streaming live to his Nokia smartphone. That would make a great bite in his report.

For the first time, Nagila is brought to a stop. A frown. A deep breath. “I’d hate to miss this,” he says to the student, John Kihumba. He looks up and down the street. Pauses again. The frown lifts.

A minute later, Kihumba’s being interviewed under a tree in a nearby parking lot, away from the guard’s reach. “What are your expectations of the case?”. “Can it really be an end to impunity for people accused of election crimes?” “What will happen next, do you think?”.

Even in the taxi back to the office, Nagila’s relentless. He takes Mwei’s camera and starts grilling the driver, the same questions, in Kiswahili this time.

It’s almost a relief to see him disappear off into the edit suite to craft his package for the NTV at 1 bulletin, which the red digits on the clock tell us starts in 28 minutes.

Nagila, 38, is one of a new breed of newsmen and women flexing their journalistic muscles as Kenya’s once repressive media landscape opens up.

Under Daniel Arap Moi, the former president, "news" was a rundown of what the leader did that day. Critical voices were silenced, and journalists were cowed by the threat of sanction from timid press owners.

Today FM radio stations clog airwaves. There are eight television stations, up from just two in 2000. At least five daily newspapers have print runs in the tens of thousands with circulations growing at up to 6 percent a year. The Daily Nation, NTV’s sister paper, prints 200,000 copies each day.

And the gloves are coming off. Front pages rarely shy away from blasting broadsides against caught-out politicians or businessmen. News bulletins are peppered with political analysis. Everyone is fair game.

Because of this, Kenyan technicians, producers, cameramen and reporters schooled in post-graduate courses overseas are flocking home to queue for jobs.

“It’s all changed completely,” Nagila told me during a rare still moment. “At first we had to grope around a bit, not sure of how far we could push it. But we’re still pushing those boundaries.”

Born in Kenya, educated in Britain, Nagila returned to Nairobi in 1999 to try to break into radio. “I was always way too curious as a kid, always taught by my parents to question everything,” he said. “Journalism was the natural job for me.”

Working his way up through radio, he is now one of the pool of television reporters at NTV. His investigations into the brutal mungiki sect, a mafia-like protection racket based in Nairobi’s slums, earned him both death threats and awards.

“There is a great demand from the audience for us to provide them with high quality output,” said Linus Kaikai, managing editor of the Nation Media Group’s broadcasting division and Nagila’s boss.

“They see CNN, they see BBC, they see Al Jazeera. We need to be at that level, and it’s becoming highly, highly competitive here in Kenya.”

Nagila reappears from the edit suite. The 28 minutes are up. In the studio, Peninah Karibe, the NTV at 1 anchor, perches herself on her stool against the blue-screen backdrop.

In the control room next door, before a bank of monitors, phones ring with final running-order changes. Nagila’s “mood of the people” package is slotted in at the last minute.

Allan Kiprop, the director of news, clicks his fingers. The countdown starts, 10 seconds, nine, eight, seven. On the clock on the wall, the red digits mount steadily to 1:00 p.m.

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