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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Of accuracy and rumours....a week of ignorant journalism

When the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitution Review pitched tent in Naivasha, I was asked to commute everyday ..all the 120 kilometres to Naivasha, and then back the same distance to Nairobi... to cover the news.
Apart from the proximity to MPs and the ethereal ambience of the Great Rift Valley Lodge, there were a little inaccuracies in the way I reported the story. It is one of those weeks where you officially wear the rumour -mongering cap and keep doing it at your best, and hope that all you are getting from the so-called 'sources' is true..
I spoke to five MPs every day, and parliament's staff too, just to get my story done. Whatever they told me, would then make its way into the paper after verification and based on what was logical. Sometimes it helps to follow your gut feeling because after the PSC released its draft, I could get to know who was lying and who was telling the truth.
Of course, when the MPs spoke, they insisted it was off-the-record, but with politicians, you always know that they have an agenda when they pull you aside and start telling you " A, B, C, D happened in the room, but do not say you got it from me."
So today they may push their agenda on X number of counties and y number of regions, but later they decide to backtrack after agreeing in camera and guess who is left with an egg on the face? The Reporter and my oh my the newspaper.
I tell you, it is tough to report ongoing discussions, and much more devastating when the deliberations are closed door.
Ask any journalist who covered Kofi Annan and his National Dialogue and Reconciliation team on how they felt ferreting information from people who were unwilling to give it out in the first place and then an editor is busy telling you ".... I need the details, please do it fast."
The parliamentary staff too were very helpful as they let me in on the sketch, the natural flow of the discussion and all that went on in the meeting room. But they were a little frugal on the details, so I had to ferret this out from the MPs before I banged my copy on the office laptop while seated under a gazebo in the lodge.
As I sipped on cold yoghurt, I was sure with what I had heard, but the cross-checking depended on who you spoke to. Some things which the parliamentary staff were pushing for also made their way into the paper, luckily it seems they were saying the truth.
RUMOURS
Citizen TV's Mutegi Njau said that all journalists covering the event were simply "spreading rumours." He got that right.
So, why didn't we just leave the venue and go eat mangos or whatever people eat and wait for the vague and superficial four o'clock evening press conferences addressed by the chairman Abdikadir Mohammed and Vice Chairman Ababu Namwamba?
Here is why: The office wants "the story behind the story", we on the ground want the story behind the press conference so that we can scoop our colleagues. As a result of that competition and many of the MPs wanting to get us "in the loop" -- so that when they are done with the retreat we can trust them with the politics-- we could cast lots on the information we had gotten from our "sources". (I hate the throwing around the word sources unless it is called for. But if I can avoid it, the better.) If the reports from the "sources" were the same, that found its way into the newspaper. If they did not tally, we just called the reports that --unconfirmed reports.
There was also this one fellow, a political activist, who calls himself a spokesman for one of the parties. He kept sending text messages to a select group of journalists telling them what was inside. The guy himself was not in the meeting, so he had a mole in that meeting room who was giving out that information, and he must have sieved it somehow, because he seemed to be championing his political party's view.
Unfortunately, he was like the torch to the PSC meeting, so that journalists didn't go around groping in the dark for details. All we needed to do was confirm. But then, when he began calling my colleague and talking about "tunakunywa wapi?" I got worried. That just did it for me. He just buttressed my instinct that he was behind all that
How could I not? It just did not feel right to meet up with him, but then again, people being people, things happen. They did happen. and if you read the newspapers, you'll find out who was pushing whose agenda and how this was done.
It is just my infallible gut feeling....and one more learning opportunity. Trust everyone, but never the devil inside!

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