By Henry Makori
Pictures of Kenyan military tanks rolling into Somalia. Defence Minister Yusuf Haji flanked by his internal security counterpart George Saitoti and Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere explain the incursion. Unsmiling generals wag fingers at a live press briefing. Pictures of soldiers distributing relief food to starving Somalis. Female soldiers at the ‘frontline’. President Kibaki declares operation will go on until al-Shabaab militia is vanquished. TV reporters in helmets and bullet proof vests report from the ‘frontline’…
These are the daily media images of the Kenyan war in Somalia. A clean war. Not a drop of blood. There have been frequent reports of killings of al-Shabaab militiamen and bombing of their bases. But no one has seen any images of the ‘frontline gains’ as NTV once described the army’s progress.
The headlines on TV and in the newspapers have been entirely celebratory since the fighting began on 16 October 2011 – except on those days when suspected retaliatory grenade attacks rocked Nairobi; the media has played down subsequent grenade attacks in other parts of the country.
Here’s a small selection from the front pages of Kenya’s two leading dailies, Nation and Standard, over the past month: ‘Nine shabaab men killed in fierce clash near border town’ (Nation); Kenya’s fearsome arsenal in offensive’ (Standard); ‘Al-Qaeda camp hit by Kenya’s jets and ships’ (Nation); ‘Kenya enters next phase in operation’ (Standard); ‘Allies hunt shabaab fighters door-to-door (Nation); ‘We will fight on to victory, vows Kibaki’ (Nation); ‘UN to punish al shabaab allies’ (Standard); ‘Spirits high as navy kills 18 shabaab’ (Standard)…
All the information carried in these stories – and many others on TV, radio and on websites – is from a single source: The military. No attempt has been made to verify independently the stories. The army holds frequent news conferences in Nairobi, but most of the time the media relies on emails and tweets from Kenya Defence Forces spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. There must be no other view of the war.
Very few people have questioned the war – or rather there has been little media coverage of opposing voices. One of these is former chairman of the Kenya National Human Rights, a state agency, Maina Kiai, who described ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ (Swahili for Operation Secure the Nation) as an ‘illegal and unconstitutional invasion of Somalia.’ The normally vocal civil society organisations, faith groups and other movements are unheard.
As Kiai says, the war is illegal because Article 95 (6) of the constitution says that, ‘The National Assembly approves declarations of war.’ Parliament never debated the Somalia invasion. Nor did the president as Commander-in-Chief of Kenya Defence Forces make the announcement. He only spoke about it subsequently as an operation against al-Shabaab terrorists. The invasion is touted as a joint security operation with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and not a war – although Ethiopian soldiers have already joined in and Kenya is supported by its Western allies, mainly USA and France.
Some observers believe Kenya decided to enter Somalia after a plan to create a new state (Azania) in the south of the country to act as a buffer between Kenya and al-Shabaab-controlled areas failed. The question that has not been openly asked – or answered in the military and political briefings – is why Kenya decided to pursue al-Shabaab inside Somalia and not the other militias inside other neighbouring countries which have for years attacked, killed and robbed Kenyans living near the national borders.
The invasion was said to be in response to the kidnapping of some Western tourists by al-Shabaab. But the militia group never claimed responsibility for those kidnappings, but actually denied the allegations. In recent years, Muslim religious leaders repeatedly claimed that al-Shabaab were recruiting youths in Nairobi and Mombasa to fight in Somalia. The government did nothing about the reports – only for the internal security ministry to tell parliament when the military invasion was launched that al-Shabaab has its ‘head’ in Eastleigh district, Nairobi. How did the Kenyan security forces let that happen?
There are claims of military adventurism as well. Kenya has never gone to war (everyone recalls Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s jibe that Kenya only had a ‘career army’); the invasion of Somalia is seen by politicians and the media here as an opportunity to demonstrate that the country is not only a regional economic power but also a military one. It is also seen as an opportunity to galvanise a country where ethnic divisions and rivalry is endemic. Only days before the inversion, the government had launched a six-month advertising campaign dubbed ‘Nitakuwapo’ (I will be here) to promote patriotism.
On the day the military incursion was launched, the military held an off-the-record briefing for senior editors in Nairobi. Did they hammer out a secret deal about how the coverage should be handled? That appears to be the case. Casper Waithaka, a senior reporter at Nation newspaper, says that announcement of the invasion generated a lot of excitement in the newsroom. Money may have changed hands as well.
‘I remember clearly that day. There was a lot of excitement in the newsroom. Some of my editors have been in the industry for 30 years but they have never had the opportunity [to cover war]. So they were saying, ‘why not?’ They were given a lot of money and they gave their go-ahead.’
The go-ahead was for reporters to be embedded with the soldiers in Somalia. Several journalists from major media houses were flown from Nairobi and are still with the soldiers. They supply daily dispatches about events in what the media here calls the ‘frontline’. Are the reports accurate representations of the reality as the reporters see it? The answer is no.
Nation has been running a disclaimer in its inside pages saying that, although its print and broadcast journalists are with the soldiers, ‘their reports are subject to military conditions.’ It is not clear what those ‘military conditions’ are and the implications for the veracity of the media reports. But other media houses (and indeed Nation’s television, NTV, and radio stations) have not carried any disclaimer.
One could get an idea of what is going on at the ‘frontline’ by speaking to reporters who have been there. Patrick Injendi, a journalist with Citizen TV, spent three weeks with the soldiers. The media has been reporting that the Kenyan army has ‘captured’ or ‘liberated’ town after town in Somalia apparently with little resistance from al shabaab as the soldiers make their way to the militia’s stronghold in the port city of Kismayu. But Injendi says the only ‘towns’ he ever saw were settlements with two or three buildings.
How do the reporters get their ‘frontline’ stories? ‘There is no freedom of movement’, Injendi says. ‘You couldn’t just wake up and decide you were going to look for news in a certain place. You must be accompanied by soldiers for security.’ That means the media reports are merely what the soldiers tell the reporters.
There also was no adequate preparation for the journalists to report the invasion. Like many Kenya journalists used to reporting the antics of politicians at funerals and rallies around the country or their statements read out at press conferences in Nairobi, Injendi says he was not prepared for the distress that came with reporting on a war. ‘We had no helmets or bullet proof jackets on leaving Nairobi.’
Yet the Kenyan media has created the impression that their reports are the truth. But Kate Hold, a British photojournalist who has covered American and British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and was early this year embedded with African Union forces in Somalia (AMISOM), says military restrictions are so bad journalists sometimes report propaganda.
‘Every time I saw a body of a soldier being repatriated I wondered why it was not being reported,’ Kate says of her experience in Somalia. ‘One day 52 Burundian soldiers were killed. I had access and could photograph them but I wasn’t allowed to report it. And it became clear why the AU did not want this reported: they felt that it was a matter of national pride and they didn’t want to make it seem to al-Shabaab that they were losing, or that there was any indication of weakness. It was the same in Afghanistan: the Americans did not want reports about how many deaths there were.’
But the question of casualties is not only in relation to the soldiers. Are those figures highlighted almost daily in the media of al-Shabaab militias killed accurate? What about Somali civilians killed in the bombings? How many are they so far? No numbers have been published, or even the mention of civilian deaths.
Simiyu Werunga, director of the African Centre for Strategic and Security Studies, suggests that civilian casualties could be quite high inside Somalia. ‘I speak from some experience: when you are fighting an organisation that is amorphous, is fluid and mobile and they are using civilians as shields, it becomes a bit difficult for a military to minimise casualties. Secondly, African militaries are not digitised, so they don’t have ‘smart’ weapons. Now, most western countries have ‘smart’ weapons, which have seriously reduced collateral damage. African countries don’t have those kinds of weaponry and because the tactics of al-Shabaab – using people as shields – it makes it difficult for the military to reduce casualties’.
Although Kenyans are being told that everything is going fine, civilian casualties are the reason why there is a lot of anger among Somalis against the Kenyan invasion, although all one sees in the media are happy Somalis welcoming their ‘liberators’. The vice-chair of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights, Hassan Omar, says the anger may not be reported in the Kenyan media but it is there, boiling in blogs run by Somalis.
‘Because of four tourist abductions, we have killed about a hundred Somalis – that is collateral damage. Because the Kenyan army has five jetfighters that have no night vision or digitisation, it is proper to kill 100 Somalis because we are bringing security to Kenya’, Omar wonders, adding that he has seen Somalis expressing bitterness about the killings in blogs. ‘There is a lot of anger there. Don’t ever underestimate it because of the fact that it is not reaching the Kenyan media.’
Because of civilian casualties, says Omar, the Kenyan army could end up facing charges of war crimes. Some groups, he said, are documenting the atrocities and could bring a suit against the military commanders. Yet there are no media reports in Kenya of Somali civilians killed. Omar poses: ‘Who is going to speak for the hundreds of Somalis who have died so far? And it is independent media that has reported this: Press TV, Al Jazeera. They have confirmed some of these deaths. Who is going to speak for them? Or are we only speaking about four tourists because our commercial interests lie there?’
The frustration is not limited to Somalia. Kenya has a large ethnic Somali population in the north of the country but also in Nairobi and other major towns. Because of the war in Somalia, Kenyan Somalis are now viewed with suspicion. There have been claims of police harassment of the citizens, supposing them to be al-Shabaab sympathisers. This violation of citizen rights has not received much media attention because of support for the war.
Rage Hassan, a radio producer at Nairobi-based Star FM, which broadcasts in Somali, says that, whereas Somalis call in to say they support the war, they also report needless harassment by the police. He has even experienced it himself. ‘Yesterday I went for a driving test and a traffic officer called out to me: ‘Hey, you al-Shabaab, come in.’
Despite such experiences, the impression created by the media is that Kenyans are united in their support for the war. ‘For whatever reasons – some could be about profits – the media since we started this incursion in Somalia has never reported the truth’, says Werunga of ACSSS. ‘If you cannot report what is happening on the ground, how can you expect the Kenyan people to start questioning what is happening?’ he wondered.
Radio journalist Kassim Mohammed who has reported on Somalia echoes that sentiment. ‘The Kenyan media has failed in reporting this war. On the other hand, the Somali media has done very well: they question, they criticise a lot of the things going on. We are in bed with the army; not just the reporters, but even the news anchors. The other day I was really shocked when a well-known TV personality came on air and said: ‘Our men are at war. Can you please send them words of encouragement.’
That pretty much sums up the Kenyan media’s attitude to the war in Somalia. But there is no doubt that the truth about what is exactly happening will eventually come to light. Trouble is, immense damage would already have been done.
Henry Makori is editorial assistant at Pambazuka News.