I have taken the decision to keep writing and help upcoming journalists

Saturday March 3 2018

JOURNALISM

A budding writer. Mentorship is necessary for proper career advancement. FILE PHOTO 

By NIC CHEESEMAN
More by this Author

In my last column, I asked whether I should be writing at all.

There were two things that concerned me: First, whether I was taking up space in an important newspaper that would be better used by Kenyans, and second whether it was time to take a stand against the rising tide of media censorship by quitting.

Unsure what to do, I turned the question over to the readers of the Sunday Nation.

COMMENTS

I did not expect that many responses, and I guessed that a lot of the ones I would get would tell me to leave.

It didn’t turn out like that. Hundreds of people tweeted and emailed, many with long messages and reasoned arguments.

And all but a small handful of comments encouraged me to stay. That made it fairly easy to continue writing, especially given that, as I said two weeks ago, it was the best part of my job.

The length of time that some people must have taken to put their words down was truly humbling, as was the fact that people from all parts of the country, and all backgrounds, offered their support.

READERS

When you write a column, you never know if you are just doing it for yourself, your mother, and the three friends who might be kind enough to skim-read it and say that it wasn’t too bad.

To know that someone out there is reading and often appreciating these words means a great deal to me. Thank you.

Apologies to those I have not yet replied to – with so many messages it has taken longer than I thought to get back to every one, but I shall be writing as soon as I can.

Thanks also to the many people who said I should keep going, but that I should also improve – hopefully you will recognise some of your ideas in the changes I set out below.

There were two main arguments in favour of staying, which I found persuasive.

PARTISAN POLITICS

The first was that providing an external perspective is useful and important. Those who write from outside the country do not know it well, which is a hindrance, but they may, occasionally, be better placed to separate the wood from trees.

The second argument was that at a moment in time in which Kenyan politics is becoming increasingly partisan and fervent, more neutral voices are valuable – especially those that are willing to be critical of both sides.

As an increasing number of commentators are forced into silence, those who remain take on greater significance.

In the interests of transparency, it is important to note that while almost all the responses were positive, many of those who encouraged me to stay also suggested that it would be important to stipulate “red lines” that, if crossed, would tell me that it was time to go.

BRITISH POLITICS

This is a fair point, so let me address it explicitly: If this newspaper ever ceases to be independently owned and simply becomes the mouthpiece for one party or another, I’ll be on my way.

There were also some good points made on the other side of the argument. A few people sent abuse, but in general those who argued that I should leave made their case well, pointing out that as Kenyans are rarely asked to comment on British politics, why should it be the case the other way around?

I hope the more collaborative approach I shall be taking to this column in future will allay some of these concerns, though I am not naïve enough to think that it shall make them go away.

All I can say is that I read and thought about every word of criticism and, if at some point in the future the “leaves” start to outweigh the “stays”, I’ll think again.

EXPERTISE

Keeping going doesn’t mean that things should stay the same.

A lot of people got in touch to suggest that I could do a better job of using this column to give a voice to marginalised groups, publicise causes that are typically overlooked, and bring hidden stories into the open.

Inspired by these suggestions, things will be changing from now on.

In the past, I have written a few co-authored pieces in order to share a wider set of viewpoints and to cover issues that I don’t feel I know as much about.

A number of readers suggested that I should collaborate with others more consistently in order to create space in the Nation for authors who might traditionally find it hard to bring their experiences and ideas to a larger audience.

BUDDING WRITERS

I have already reached out to a number of people via social media, but if you would like to work on an article together in the future please get in touch via Twitter (@fromagehomme).

It would be particularly good to hear from people who have experienced or written about abuses of power and rights that have not been covered by the mainstream media.

If possible, collaborators will take top billing in the byline. If not, I am happy for people to work with me anonymously if that is what it takes to keep them safe – but please remember to contact me well in advance of when a story would need to run, as it always takes longer than you think to prepare something for publication.

Other readers pointed out that a British academic taking up space in an African newspaper would be less of a worry if the column could be used as a vehicle to create opportunities for a new generation of Kenyan writers.

MENTORSHIP

This is a good point, and so I have got together with colleagues from the media and academic community to set up a mentorship scheme for aspiring writers who wish to work on issues related to politics, democracy and human rights.

Through my website, we will select three people a year to mentor by providing training in how to pitch, write and edit articles, career advice, and small grants to cover the cost of researching stories.

We will also offer guidance about where those on the programme can publish their work, to help people start to make a living through journalism.

Anyone is welcome to apply for mentorship so long as they live in East Africa, are just starting out in their careers, and are not already employed full-time in the media.

Applications close on March 31, 2018, and you can find more details at http://democracyinafrica.org/mentors/

TRAGEDY

Apologies for two rather introverted columns in a row. To justify the navel-gazing, it must be followed by action.

One of the greatest challenges to democracy around the world is the repression of the media, and that is where I said I would turn my attention if I kept writing.

During the preparation of this column, I read the tragic story of Jan Kuciak and his wife, who were shot dead in their home in Slovakia.

Kuciak was a journalist and was putting the finishing touches to a story that alleged that the Italian mafia had links to figures close to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Before he could finish his work, he was killed.

INTIMIDATION

It was the first killing of a journalist in Slovakia’s history, and reflects a global trend.

Attacks on journalists have become worryingly common around the world over the last decade.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded 821 murders of reporters since 1992, with eight so far this year.

From a low of 26 in 1996 and 1997, the numbers have steadily increased, with more than 40 journalists killed in each of the past 15 years.

As readers will know, there are a number of Kenyan journalists amongst those numbers, including Francis Nyaruri and John Kituyi.

Of course, media intimidation typically takes less brutal forms. Voices can be frozen out without being extinguished if those in power can exert political influence over the press.

NATION OWNERSHIP

As I was in the process of putting this article together, sitting on a train looking out at a frozen British landscape of snow and ice, my phone was quietly buzzing.

If the messages that I received are true, in the same week that I made up my mind to continue to write for this newspaper, others were denied the right to make the same choice.

By the time you read this, other columnists and editors may have left.

Indeed, if the rumours are to be believed, the very ownership of this newspaper may be about to change hands, resulting in one of the greatest shifts in the media landscape in contemporary Kenyan history.

DEMOCRACY

I didn’t write this column in ignorance of these processes, or as an attempt to gloss over them, but by the time I had to file my thoughts, it was not clear how they would play out.

Like many of you, I shall be hoping that these rumours turn out to be false, that gossip is not tracking reality, and that media independence wins out.

If it does not, Kenyan democracy will be the loser.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham; @fromagehomme