Above the fold of the February 1999 issue of eXpression today. The front-page story, “Kenya Turned Into Haven For Drug Barons,” is the story that got Editor David Makali kidnapped and beaten.

David Makali chose his best weapon to fight press harassment in Kenya: the pages of eXpression today, a monthly media review journal he edits. Using the power of his words, Makali shot back at the person who just one month earlier—according to him—had ordered a dozen men to kidnap him outside a Nairobi hotel, shove him into a van, and take him to a forest where they slapped, punched and stepped on him while he was on the ground. When they were done, they ordered him to run further into the forest until he disappeared from their sight. After a while, he heard their vehicle leave.

According to Makali, he then made his way out of the woods and found a restaurant nearby. He wanted to make a call, but there were no phones he could use. He boarded public transportation back to town. Though his ears, neck, chest and ribs were sore, he was not seriously injured. The whole experience lasted for about two hours. He gave a press conference on the same day in which he explained his ordeal. In “Point Blank: The Column That Pulls No Punches,” Makali exposed the person who ordered the beating: Fred Gumo, Assistant Minister in the office of the President, a man who has earned by his actions a thuggish reputation.

“If Gumo thinks he can rule the streets and rule the newsrooms at the same time,” wrote Makali, “then he is quite mistaken.” In his column, he demanded to know why the police or the Attorney General had not taken any action against Gumo. It was eXpression today in its usual bare-knuckle combativeness. The journal is published by the Media Institute, an organization dedicated to free speech which Makali and his colleagues founded in 1996.

Gumo’s actions against Makali came about because of a special investigative report on drug trafficking in Kenya that appeared in the February issue of eXpression today. The article incensed Gumo because he was named by official police sources as a suspect. “In four months of investigations facilitated by the United States-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, we have come across a system that is so corrupt that it punishes petty addicts and vendors with stiff jail sentences while big-time traffickers slip through legal loopholes thanks to an incompetent anti-narcotics unit and a porous judiciary,” the lead story read. The issue carried eight articles on this topic.

“In every issue we want to make a special in-depth analysis of a topic that’s not getting adequate coverage or is ignored by the regular media,” says Makali to explain why his media review devoted extensive space to drug trafficking. “Mainstream papers, like Nation and Standard, fear reprisals or legal action. There are big individuals involved in drug trafficking but they don’t want to name them.” The reference is to The Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest and most influential paper, and The East African Standard, founded in 1902, which is the oldest.

Makali believes that there needs to be a more serious effort in investigative journalism by the major dailies. He maintains that editors allow some stories to languish in computers in order to protect certain individuals. Alternatively, editors will insist that the stories will be published only after implicated individuals respond. But some public officials, claims Makali, never respond to phone calls—especially from journalists. So what does one do? To him, the answer is simple: Go with the story and hope that they’ll respond after publication.

In naming Gumo as the person responsible for organizing the beating, eXpression today was going on much more than a hunch. “Everything points to Gumo’s hand. And he has not even denied it,” states Makali. In fact, Gumo, after the incident, had the audacity to warn journalists from the Luhya ethnic group—to which he and Makali belong—that they would be whipped if they wrote “dirty things” about their leaders. The warning, which Gumo gave while attending a funeral in Western Kenya, got widespread condemnation in the media. Even cartoonists jumped in with drawings of a menacing Gumo, clutching a whip or club, while fuming at reporters.

“We don’t play holier than thou,” says Makali, 30, to explain his publication’s approach. “In everything we do we believe we’re doing an honest job that needs to be done. The idea is that ultimately we’re trying to burst and expand the horizons of press freedom in this country by checking the excessive influence of the various forces such as the threat of advertisers to control content, and the threat by politicians to circumscribe freedom of the press through legislation. Secondly, we are dealing with a new generation of people. My generation is thinking of revolutionizing.” Tsuma Charo, 26, and Ng’ang’a Mbugua, 25, are his two editorial assistants, and the three make up eXpression today’s editorial board.

eXpression today, which first appeared in print in September 1997, has created a unique role for itself within Kenyan journalism. Put simply, it is a watchdog on the watchdogs. Print journalists in particular, who became more daring with the political liberalization that came when opposition parties were legalized in 1991, now have to contend with a punchy industry critique each month. Tabloid-sized and with issues that have varied in length from 28 to 64 pages, it’s the most comprehensive and steadily produced media review in Kenya today. It prints 3,500 copies per issue and has plans to boost the figure to 7,000.

Priced at 30 Kenyan shillings (46 cents) per copy, eXpression today was available only in select newsstands in Nairobi when it started. Members of Parliament and journalists in the country get it at no charge. Diplomatic missions in Nairobi, some Kenyan human rights groups, and foreign organizations devoted to freedom of expression—such as Article 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists—each receive a free copy. From April this year, eXpression today will have a distributor to carry it nationwide and to Tanzania and Uganda. Currently, the publication has 150 paid subscribers.

The publication’s entire staff is made up of eight people and operates out of a modest four-room office in downtown Nairobi. It survives on funding, mostly from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland. The connection with the Finns came about after Makali put out a grant proposal to start a media monitoring organization.

In the pages of eXpression today one finds stories such as: “A Peek Into the Dare-devilry of Investigative Journalism,” “Gap Widens Between Journalism Training and Practice in Kenya,” “Patience Is the Hallmark of a Good Editor,” “Poor Remuneration the Bane of Kenyan Journalism,” and “Why This Negative Portrayal of Women by Media?” But the journal goes beyond watching the media or chasing risky stories like drug trafficking. It also tackles human rights and democracy issues. Writers can submit poems and short stories. For some critics, this points to a lack of journalistic purity.

But Makali and others, especially those active in human rights issues, disagree. “Advocacy is tied to truth and accuracy but that of itself does not exhaust our duty in a changing Kenya,” explains Pheroze Nowrojee, a prominent Nairobi attorney and member of the Media Institute’s board. “Our professional skills—whether as lawyers or journalists—must be put to the service of certain values which will bring about increasing democratization in Kenya.” Gitobu Imanyara, an opposition member of Parliament and co-winner of the 1991 Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism as Editor of Nairobi Law Monthly, also sits on the 14-member board, which represents a variety of professions.

“If David Makali had started this publication when he was just a reporter, probably he would not have drawn the same attention to the publication as he did after coming from jail,” says Mugambi Karanja, Managing Editor of The East African Standard. Karanja refers to when Makali worked for a weekly paper owned by a prominent opposition leader. In 1994, he and his editor-in-chief chose to go to jail for a couple of months rather than apologize and pay a heavy fine for contempt of court over an article he wrote criticizing a Court of Appeal decision.

The action received extensive coverage in the press. Makali and his editor even got mentioned in the annual State Department human rights report and that of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Amnesty International not only included them in its own report but also adopted them as prisoners of conscience. And the case was raised in the Kenyan Parliament by opposition members who were angered by the fact that Makali and his colleague were placed in solitary confinement. This forced the authorities to transfer them back to regular imprisonment after two weeks.

eXpression today has carried a number of unflattering pieces on internal developments at The Standard, which last year had a major change of senior editors. It also fired an investigative reporter for a story that claimed the managing director of Kenya Airways purchased four jets for himself using his company’s money. The article turned out to be false and forced the paper to pay the director 2.5 million Kenyan shillings ($38,000) in damages. Karanja contends that some of the early pieces Makali published about his paper were one-sided, but later ones became more well-rounded. He confesses that the review has kept him and others on their toes and that The Standard now makes an effort to respond to queries from writers working on eXpression today stories. The Standard has realized that it’s much better to get its side of a story out before publication rather than later.

Media Focus magazine is another review. It’s published by the Media Development Association, an organization started in 1994 and comprised of former students of the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism whose studies were sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Members work mostly in the journalism or communication field and produce the magazine when they get the chance. As a result, only six issues have come out since it premiered in 1995. It too has a Web site. “We don’t crusade for the media,” says Mundia Muchiri, Editor of both The Daily Nation’s Saturday magazine and Media Focus. “The main thing we do is offer a forum to journalists to discuss issues of common interests. It’s not so much an issue of us and them. It’s more an issue of us and us.” To Makali, this is not enough. “The issues we have in this country call for confrontation,” he says. “If journalists are not being paid, we say they should be paid. Media Focus doesn’t prick the subject of those discussions.”

Since eXpression today doesn’t pay its own writers, what right does Makali have to raise the pay issue? “The point is that we would like to pay if we could pay,” he answers. “But we cannot sustain the paper that way because it would be terminal. Why would it be terminal? Because by virtue of our area of coverage it’s not a high-circulation area. Even if the paper sold its targeted 7,000, it’s not enough to pay for the paper’s printing. In the past, eXpression today has had seasonal ads but they are not anything that can change the financial position in any significant way.”

Wangui Kanina is a young general assignment reporter with The People Daily, which takes a strong anti-government line. When she joined it in 1997, she was surprised to find only one other female staff writer. Though it now has three, she points out that the low number is reflective of the country as a whole where women are scarce in important decision-making positions. She has read eXpression today since its debut and confesses to enjoy the way it probes at issues. However, Kanina—a member of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK)—sees room for improvement. “If they could initially try and find what problems or issues are faced by women in newsrooms, for the sole fact that they are women, and try to highlight them, it could be a beginning,” she adds.

Makali admits that eXpression today has not adequately addressed difficulties faced by female journalists. But he does not accept responsibility. To him, the review has created a forum and it’s up to journalists—male and female—to raise their individual issues for discussion. He states, “What women journalists are doing is sitting and grumbling among themselves instead of reaching out to others to help improve the situation. AMWIK has never sought to collaborate with us on anything. They hold exclusive functions for media women.”

“In Kenya, allegations are taken very seriously and counter-allegations are taken very lightly. So allegations can be very damaging,” says Frank Ojiambo, Internet Publications Editor for The Nation Media Group Limited, which publishes The Daily Nation, along with other papers. He applauds the arrival of eXpression today. And he likes the way it has highlighted corruption in the media and working conditions for stringers, many of whom are poorly paid—especially in the rural areas. However, he feels that some of the critical exposés have been one-sided.

Ojiambo, a former national chairman of the Kenya Union of Journalists, believes that if a writer is only able to get one side of a story, the fact must be explained fully to the reader. And the publication should continue to try to get the other side, even after the piece has been printed, in order to publish a follow-up. Makali insists that all efforts are made to get reaction from the person being criticized, and when it doesn’t appear it’s because they have been unable to get one.

When tourists in Uganda were killed in March by Rwandan Hutu rebels, The Daily Nation’s initial story came out with the front-page headline: “Eight Tourists Are Massacred.” The tourists were from America, Britain and New Zealand. President Daniel arap Moi, sensitive over Kenya’s tarnished international image since he took power in 1978, questioned why the paper’s lead story was of an incident that happened in a neighboring country.

In eXpression today’s “Point Blank” column that month, the publication—in a rare turn—agreed with the President that it was an odd editorial decision. The review went on to point out that the same edition of The Daily Nation carried a story of 15 Kenyans who starved to death but it was buried inside the paper. Wangethi Mwangi, Group Managing Editor at The Nation Media Group, grudgingly concedes that the criticism had merit. But he quickly points out that right below the headline was a map of East Africa with an arrow that clearly indicated the site where the killings took place in southwestern Uganda. As a result, he feels, most readers could not have mistaken the incident to have happened in Kenya.

Funding for eXpression today runs out this summer, but Makali hopes it will be renewed for one more year. By then, he claims, the review’s increasing notoriety will have attracted advertisements that, in turn, will allow it to be self-sustaining. While he edits eXpression today, he’s also the chairman of an organizing committee that is launching Kenya’s version of the Pulitzers. And he wants to start panel discussions in which editors field questions from the public.

“The answer is yes without any question,” answers Mwangi when asked whether this kind of media review is needed in Kenya. “The greatest contribution is that it facilitates communication within the media in Kenya.” Coming from a key editor at the largest media company in East and Central Africa, the compliment is a good indicator that eXpression today, despite the criticisms, isn’t being ignored.

Wilson Wanene is a Kenyan-born freelance journalist based in Boston. He was in Kenya from December to May.

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