Journalist leads mission to expand health coverage in Kenya

byBrian Dabbs
Nov 4, 2009 in Specialized Topics

According to journalism trainer Rachel Jones, expanding coverage of health issues in Kenya was “really just a question of taking the initiative."

Through the Knight fellowship, a two-year program sponsored by the D.C.-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) designed to improve journalism around the world, Jones teamed up with East and Central Africa’s largest media house, the Nation Media Group, in June 2008. A few months into her fellowship, she spearheaded a reporting mission to explore conditions in Nairobi's hospitals. The reporting led to a September 21, 2008 article in The Daily Nation that exposed the poor state of the country's facilities. As a result, the government pledged to significantly increase subsidies for medical facilities.

It boiled down to initiative because Jones, a former reporter for U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR) and American publications the St. Petersburg Times and The Detroit Free Press, says health-related issues are simply not a priority in the Kenyan media.

"Things like health aren't really seen as news," Jones said from her home in one of Nairobi's suburbs. “They're seen as women's issues.”

Kenyan media coverage has, in recent years, focused mostly on the political landscape. “People are more concerned about political drama than health here,” Jones told IJNet. “The government is justified to an extent with cleaving to what they consider news,” she said, because of the violence that followed the Presidential election in Kenya in late 2007. According to the New York Times, more than 1,000 people died in the election aftermath.

But Jones, after hearing about a parliament committee report on the poor state of Kenyan hospitals, decided the quality of health facilities in the nation was media worthy. "The report spurred my own journalistic impulses," the veteran reporter confessed. She began asking questions to government officials about the report but received little more than “a lot of run around.” So she decided to investigate. She located several reporters at The Daily Nation who wanted to get involved, and got permission from the editors at the newspaper.

The September 21 article, the result of the coordinated reporting, sent minor shockwaves through the government. "Government officials aren't used to being questioned; they're not used to journalists probing on health issues," Jones said. She speculates the government experienced a degree of embarrassment and felt obliged to act.

And act they did. An article published on September 23, 2009 in The Daily Nation revealed the Ministry of Medical Services' pledge to pour US$7.5 million into refurbishing hospitals. In the article, Public Health Services Assistant Minister Mr Danson Mungatana admitted conditions in the hospitals were poor because of a lack of funding. Jones believes, without question, the article a year earlier had a direct impact on the reallocation of funds.

Although, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Kenya enjoys a more diverse and liberalized media scene than many other African countries, Jones said journalists often risk physical harm or damage to their careers when reporting. Press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Kenya 96th on its list of the press freedom in countries around the world in 2009. Earlier this year, Kenyan reporter Francis Nyaruri was found decapitated in Nyanza province after publishing several stories exposing corruption in the police department.

Possibly because of this environment, Jones says historically reporters have been obsequious when reporting on health issues. “Journalists are used to taking press releases and going back to the newsroom to publish when dealing with these issues.”

But she is determined to improve and expand media coverage of health issues, despite the risks, and is set to tackle another phase in her fellowship work with reporters in Kenya. Because of the complex stream of money that follows government allocation of funds, Jones believes journalists must sharpen their investigative skills and learn to follow the money trail. "I'm trying to build the capacity of journalists to follow that stream and to not be intimidated," she stated.

Thus far, Jones has taken a one-on-one approach to improving the journalistic skills of reporters – but not by choice. In past years, working in Uganda, Jones led workshops to improve coverage of gender-related violence, which involved training on specific reporting skills and the help of experts to educate reporters on the issues. But, Jones admitted, in Kenya she did not see the same enthusiasm. "I made attempts to do workshops, but the turnout was low."

Regardless, it appears as though media coverage of health issues is improving steadily and substantially. A simple search for "health" on The Daily Nation site reveal hundreds of articles published in the last year. A few weeks ago, on October 13, the front page of The Daily Nation included an article on child obesity. According to Jones, this represents a significant change of media focus, for the better.

“When I arrived here in Kenya, there is no way this story would be considered for front page news," she said. "I consider this a huge milestone.”

For more information on Rachel Jones’ fellowship work click here.

Hospital photo courtesy of The Daily Nation.