When journalism fails, hearsay and scaremongering take over. On Thursday last week at 11.01pm, Mildred Owiso wrote 138 words in “Buyer Beware Kenya” blog that were essentially hearsay – the report of another person’s words—that mothers who give birth at Kenyatta National Hospital are routinely raped by health workers or morticians who come to collect dead bodies.
Mildred, no doubt, believed what she wrote but it was still hearsay -- information she had received from other people that could not, or had not, been substantiated. Call it a rumour. No mother had reported actual or attempted rape except in social media.
In fact, what Mildred penned was pretty innocuous by social media standards. Her main point was not the alleged raping of lactating mothers. She was apparently more concerned with “a woman dressed in a Christian regalia” who steals handbags. She ended her message by asking KNH to look into the matter. It was the media’s unquestioning reporting of her post and the reactions – all based on hearsay --that went over the top.
“KNH is a hot spot of thieves and all kinds, from the queue to the lift, beware. Today, a woman dressed in a Christian regalia was caught, red-handed with her hands in another ladies bag,” she wrote. “Also, security is a big issue, especially for mothers who kids are in the nursery.
Apparently, they need to go breastfeed their babies after every two hours, or so. The nurseries are at the ground floor, and the mothers third floor. Today, met a lady who was nearly raped, when she had gone to breastfeed baby about 3:00 am. Only thing that save her the ordeal was her voice. She screamed her alleged attack off. Never mind, this is someone who had her twins via cesarean, barely even healed. Such vulnerable mothers need protection. Absurd! KNH, please look onto this matter.”
KNH CEO Lily Koros promptly issued a press statement saying she was “saddened by the allegations that appeared in social media today, 19th of January on raping of mothers at KNH.” She invited victims to report to the hospital’s customer care office.
When Mildred Owiso she spoke on KTN news on Saturday after her post had gathered a storm that galvanised women parliamentarians and other protesters, it became even more obvious she was peddling hearsay. In the absence of authoritative reports the hearsay became the real story, with alarming and shocking effects. In our various cultures, mothers, especially postpartum, are sacrosanct.
Anybody who violates them is public enemy number one. The hearsay acquired a life of its own. Not since the 2007/8 post-election shambles has there been a social media rumour that so many people believed.
However, the confusion created by the 138 words on Facebook could have been avoided if the mainstream media had assumed it traditional role of verification instead of merely echoing what Mildred had published in social media and the reactions that followed. The media had at least a full day since the 138 words were posted to verify the story, or question it, and publish a more reliable story as early as Saturday. That did not happen. The public had to wait for three days to read the first story that was not a mere parody of those 138 words.
To its credit, though belatedly, the Nation on Monday this week published the story “Why it’s hard to know where truth lies in KNH rape saga” by Elizabeth Merab that attempted to perform the surveillance role of the media. In all the other stories, the public was treated to a parody of social media posts and the reactions of the various players and interested parties.
Social media, it is true, has changed the way news is gathered and consumed. However, traditional journalists remain the major reliable source of news and information. This is a role they should not abdicate to citizen journalists, or whatever one may want to call people like Mildred Owiso.
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