How Kenyan journalists expose government corruption

by Catherine Gicheru
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

In the story of the hummingbird as narrated by celebrated Kenyan environmental activist, women’s rights advocate and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, the little bird did everything it could to put out a fire that was destroying the forest as other animals, big and small, stood by and watched their home being destroyed.

Corruption is destroying Kenya and a poll indicates the situation has worsened in the last 12 months. Many people wring their hands and complain but do nothing, choosing not to place themselves or their families at risk. But there are a few people who have taken up the challenge and are doing their own "little thing" to fight against corruption.

These individuals and institutions were among recipients of an award by the National Integrity Alliance — comprising of Transparency International Kenya, the Association of Citizens Against Corruption, the Society for International Development and Angaza Writers — which recognizes ordinary citizens who have taken action, however small, to fight corruption in their own spaces. The Champions of Integrity Awards were presented during the International Anti-Corruption Day on December 4. The public nominated the winners of the awards, which are intended to inspire hope and increase direct citizen engagement in the fight against corruption.

For many journalists, the petty corruption that has become so prevalent in the society is overshadowed by the multibillion dollar corruption that involves politicians, business and institutions. In their role as watchdogs, agenda setters and gatekeepers, journalists frame the discussion about corruption and contribute to changing the culture that enables corruption to thrive. Through their coverage (or lack of it), they can influence whether people accept corruption, go along with it or stand up against it. Their reporting can empower or disempower the public in how they deal with corruption. It has the potential to shape the perception of what many consider to be the norm.

But for journalists to be effective, they must realize that the fight against corruption starts from their own moral and ethical position. They must believe that corruption is evil and must be fought.

They must also understand corruption for what it is — from the grand structural corruption involving extensive unethical behavior by public servants to the petty everyday corruption that benefits an individual or a small group of people. They must make the distinction between corruption and government inefficiencies or incompetence. Misrepresenting these can give rise to public cynicism and feelings of helplessness in the face of abuse.

Journalists should not limit themselves to exposing corruption in the government, but should shine their spotlight on private corruption such as financial fraud or price manipulations by large local and international monopolies. They should also take a critical look at the media industry itself, including ownership and its exposure to political and economic pressures.

In Kenya, journalists have continued to call attention to official corruption, amplifying the demand for action from an angry public and suggested possible solutions to the problem. Some of these exposés include the Goldenberg International scandal involving government subsidies for gold, the 2009 scandal over government sale of imported maize and a 2010 scandal involving a lucrative Department of Defense contract for servicing of military jets scandal.

Unfortunately, in some instances, investigations initiated by the authorities as a result of media campaigns almost always get shelved or diluted, while the follow-up by journalists is sometimes very poor. Indeed, the government tends to bury its head in the sand even in the face of incessant calls for the sacking of individuals implicated in corruption.

After exposing individuals and institutions to public scorn for their corrupt activities, what is an investigative journalist to do to ensure that action is taken?

An enabling environment comprising of a legal, regulatory policy framework and political, socio-cultural factors that mandate the government to make information available to the public can help journalists fight corruption. In the absence of laws guaranteeing the rights to freedom of speech, information and association governments are likely to be excessively secretive, which breeds corruption and anarchy. The more information is available to the public, the less likely governments are able to hide illegal acts.

A government’s anti-corruption efforts can be gauged by how it deals with journalists who expose failings by government officials and departments. Threatening and arresting journalists and putting them in jail or worse for informing the public about public spending is detrimental to any anti-corruption efforts. Statements giving assurances to citizens about fighting graft ring hollow if at the same time journalists are warned that any exposure of corruption activities will be considered an attempt at maligning the regime.

But in all this, journalists must accept that they are not miracle workers. They might expose corruption, but the story may not necessarily have the impact or audience they had hoped. Despite the frustration and threats, they must persevere and continue to do this important job — fighting corruption.

Catherine Gicheru is a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for Kenya. She was nominated for Kenya's 2015 Integrity Champion Award. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Image CC-licensed by Flickr via Adam Bindslev.