Sex, Politics And Money: A Holiday Grab-Bag
On several occasions over the past few months, I’ve received only one or two complaints about a particular story or practice of the Star—not enough, in my view, to merit a whole column. But the complaints have stuck in my mind because of the issues they raise, and as the year comes to a close I’d like to briefly discuss three of them.
The first involves a Star cartoon. Political cartoons have a special power to cause outrage, as demonstrated five years ago when a cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, published in a Danish newspaper, caused protests around the world including here in Kenya. More recently, the office of a French satirical magazine was bombed in early November after the magazine featured a cartoon of the prophet on its cover.
The cartoon in this case appeared in the Star on November 8 in ‘Victor’s View’. It followed British PM David Cameron’s statement that he would cut aid to countries that don’t respect gay rights. (The US said early this month that respect for gay rights would also figure in its foreign policy decisions.) The cartoon showed a figure representing Africa with his pants down and Cameron ordering, “Bend, if you want my money.”
In an email exchange with CEO William Pike prompted by a first-day complaint, Star cartoonist Victor Ndula explained that he wanted to make the point that “if we want money from the UK then we have to take it on their terms”.
But to reader Mbugua Kang’ethe, who subsequently wrote to the public editor, the publication of the cartoon represented a failure to respect Kenyan values and standards of decency. Kang’ethe went on to ask, “[D]oes the cartoon have any serious literary, artistic, informative, political or scientific value to the readers and could the same message/joke/humour have been delivered any other way?”
I would argue, in response to Kang’ethe’s first point, that cartoons by their nature are often not in good taste. As retired US publisher Victor Navasky wrote in a commentary following the French incident, “A caricature is by definition an exaggeration, a distortion, unfair.” Good cartoonists, of course, don’t engage in tastelessness or distortion for their own sake; rather, they are using the tools of their trade, as I believe Ndula was doing here.
As to whether Ndula’s message could have been delivered equally well in another way, my answer is no. Cartoons, like poetry, are a special way of viewing the world and you can’t substitute one form of expression for another. Most definitely the cartoon was not something I’d have wanted to explain to a 13-year-old, as Kang’ethe says he was called on to do.
But then, I would also hate to have to explain why men defile young girls and even babies, accounts of which are a staple of the news pages. Newspapers are not for the faint-hearted; maybe they should come with warnings like alcohol or cigarettes.
The second issue has to do with the way foreign affairs are reported in the Star. During the uprising in Libya, reader Zaya Yeebo wrote to complain about the coverage of the Nato-supported rebellion, in particular a headline that suggested Gaddafi was the aggressor. Yeebo asked “how would any state—American, British, French, Kenyan, or otherwise, react to a military challenge by rebels for any reason? So you see my point, your reporting, particularly that type of headline, is one-sided, judgmental, etc.”
This complaint speaks to the issue of how a newspaper like the Star can cover the world from a Kenyan perspective when, for financial reasons, it depends mainly on Western-owned agencies like Reuters to provide it with foreign news. My answer is that for the most part, it can’t. Sure, you can edit out the egregious bits—as David Kioko, the Star sub-editor who normally puts together the foreign pages, says he does regularly—but without your own people on the ground, you can’t fundamentally change the point of view.
Pike recognises the problem. “The agencies have a Western bias,” he says, “but it’s very difficult to avoid using them.” The Star’s primary effort to balance things out, he says, is to regularly carry the views of African commentators. In the case of Libya, he points to a column by Uganda-born Mahmood Mamdani that described the Nato intervention as prompted by Western interests.
One effort to present the world from an African perspective is A24 Media, a video news agency co-founded by Kenyan Salim Amin that supplies African news to the continent and the rest of the world. Amin told me last year that he had been inspired by the example of Al Jazeera, and realised that “we have to do it ourselves”.
But to do it on the scale of Al Jazeera would involve a huge investment. Al Jazeera is underwritten by the government of Qatar, and right now, I don’t see any equivalent private or public funder in Africa. (Why didn’t Gaddafi spend some of his millions on that project?) Which is all the more reason to cheer on efforts like Amin’s.
And finally, an email from Natalya Din-Kariuki, who wrote to complain about what she sees as the Star’s emphasis on Nairobi’s moneyed elite. Describing herself as among this group, Din-Kariuki wrote that, nonetheless, “It just strikes me as unashamedly immoral to have sections like the ‘Society’ page and columns like ‘My Stuff’ when 70 per cent of the population live below the poverty line….I think if a newspaper is going to market itself as a national newspaper, it should at least attempt to be accessible to the majority.”
Pike defends the paper’s inclusion of features like ‘My Stuff’ as part of a smorgasbord that also includes hard-hitting investigations. And, in any case, he argues, “All over the world poor people like ogling the lives of the rich and famous.” Nonetheless, he says, he is aware that the paper needs to go beyond simply trying to satisfy its target audience of young executives. “In the end, the biggest single problem in Kenya is social inequality and income differences,” he says. “We have ambitions to be a national newspaper pushing the reform agenda, and we want to pull in people outside of the target audience.”
The Star could without question do more to reflect Kenyan realities. But while its executives may believe in serving the public interest, they also have to keep an eye on the bottom line. Still, if Din-Kariuki is typical of her generation, young people have a level of idealism that might make it a matter of both good citizenship and good business to pay more attention to the lives of all Kenyans—including those who can’t afford to buy the paper. I’ll try to do my part to push that notion inside the Star newsroom.
And with that, I close out the year, with thanks for all of your emails of the past few months. If you haven’t yet contributed a comment or criticism, make a New Year’s Resolution to do so by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.