#GarissaAttack: How Kenyan media covers terrorist attacks

A students of the Garissa University College injured in the al-Shabaab attack. [AFP]

A students of the Garissa University College injured in the al-Shabaab attack. [AFP]

On Thursday April 2, four gunmen made their way into Garissa’s pioneer institution of higher education – Garissa University College – and, starting the early hours of the morning, killed 148 students at dawn.

The attack, labelled as the second worst attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, caught the nation by surprise.

Even though there were previous intelligence reports that attacks were imminent in specific places across the country, the onslaught also took media agencies unawares.

Given the fast nature of social media, the news of the attack spread on Twitter and Facebook before they were picked by mainstream media outlets in Kenya. In fact, most of the TV and dip perdio stations were on their daily routine of broadcasting infotainment content in their morning shows, with some only providing the brief update of an attack “being reported” in Garissa.

The news was first broken on Facebook by Abdikadir Barre Musa, a lecturer at a nearby teacher’s training college. His short post read, “We are under attack. Pray for us.”

Facebook users, mainly Garissa residents, picked up from there and started spreading the news. Abdikadir went silent for the following 30-plus hours. Majority of his friends thought that he died in the process.

On Friday, April 3 at 14:57, Abdikadir put up another status stating that he is alive, safe and sound. He described the experience as “a horrendous ordeal,” promising his friends that he will send more updates soon.

Majority of Kenyans on social media thought that this was a small attack and that the security apparatus in Garissa would take care of the situation.

But this was not the case. Bloggers, who seemed to have sources inside the university, started sharing exclusive reports detailing how ruthless the gunmen were. Hours into the attack, the #GarissaAttack hashtag was trending across Kenya.

International media houses including Al Jazeera and the BBC started highlighting the news. These media organizations used freelance journalists based in Garissa to get a view of how the situation was unfolding. At this juncture, Kenyan media houses seemed to still have been in a self-assessing state, before expounding on the breaking news.

Anti-terror laws passed in mid-December last year appeared to be the guiding principle behind the cautious approach Kenyan media used to report on the terrorist attacks in Garissa.

But even though the clauses affecting journalists were thrown out by the court, there is still a lingering fear among journalists on how they cover terrorist attacks.

This meant that the reporters would be more careful when informing the public of what was going on, and even deliberate on who to quote and what to say during live reporting of terrorist attacks.

When al-Shabaab attacked Westgate on September 2013, the Kenyan media rushed to the scene to report on the attack. A sense of urgency pervaded the event, as media houses rushed to get to the site of the siege, and report on the story fast.

However, back then, there were many loopholes when reporting on the story. Somali-American journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim penned down a piece in these same pages about how media outlets committed what he called the “comedy of errors.”

The Kenyan media repeatedly quoted a fake Twitter account associated with al-Shabaab. (It is only fair to add here that Al Jazeera English did the same too.) A Kenyan TV anchor tweeted about the death of radio personality Ruhila Adatia-Sood and then deleted it. The Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest daily, also posted the photo of a bloodied, shrieking woman on its front page, and went on to flip it so as to “make it work better for the layout.”

The journalists – who were mostly inexperienced in covering such terrorism attacks – did not also take precautions when informing the public on what was going on.

One media house went as far as calling a person trapped in the mall live on air, asking her what was going on and where she was hiding. Security experts described this as one of numerous “grave dangers” undertaken by Kenyan journalists when covering the Westgate attack.

Information flow was also not accurate since journalists who arrived at the scene thought it was just a robbery – at first. The government itself – which journalists depend on to confirm information at critical events like that one, besides elections – seemed not to be sure of what was going on at first. This cycle of misunderstandings led to a web of inaccurate information circulating both online and in mainstream media.

The media received huge criticism in what was termed as “playing to the terrorists hand,” in their quest to cover the story.

Analysts said that the media focused on the drama, the actions and the heroes of the day, and forgot to invest in reporting about the victims who went through physical and mental trauma.

As some agencies who are concerned with media safety highlighted, journalists sent to the scene of the attack were not wearing protective gears, a grievous mistake that could have turned fatal. However, for the international journalists, it was different. As The New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks narrated later, he sent his wife to fetch his protective gear and special gear to cover the attack. (Hicks won a Pulitzer in photography for his coverage of Westgate.)

As if cueing their coverage of Westgate attack, Kenya’s journalists appeared to be more composed when covering the assault on Garissa University College. They reported what they verified. Initial reports of the number of dead were less than 15. These were the figures which reporters received from authorities in Garissa.

Besides, despite the fact that there were contradicting reports on the number of the dead, Kenya’s media stuck to what officially was confirmed by the government. The BBC reported that the death toll had surged to close to 100. At the same time, Kenyan media was reporting that 16 was the number of confirmed dead, and that the number of injured were 70.

As hours went by, local media confirmed that the death toll escalated to the numbers that the BBC reported hours before.

Independent bloggers also had their own exclusive numbers. A local blogger tweeted that there are reports that the death toll was close to 200. This was reported before the siege had ended.

After the siege of more than 16 hours ended, Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government Joseph Nkaissery called a press briefing and confirmed that the numbers of the dead were 70 and that the injured were 79. These were the numbers initially reported by the BBC.

Three hours after the briefing, Nkaissery called another press conference and announced that the number had jumped to 147. This is because there were more bodies found in the hostels.

Comparing the Westgate and Garissa attacks and how the local media covered them, we can see the contrast between the two. The media appeared to be learning from their initial mistakes of broadcasting unconfirmed reports and misleading the public. It also followed the narrative they followed during the 2013 elections, which involved waiting for government official statements instead of digging up information on their own and then verifying them.

At least, the Garissa attacks have showed us how Kenya’s media might not have reported to the best of their ability, but we can see a clear change – thanks to strict media laws, and a mixture of gaffes and serious blunders in their previous coverages – the way they handle and report such stories.

Osman is a Kenyan journalist and a contributing reporter for Sahan Journal.

Follow him on Twitter: @OsmanMOsman_

Email: jayberet@gmail.com

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