REPORTING HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN KENYA: FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
I presented this paper At the Workshop on Trafficking in Persons in the East Africa Region
Lenana Mount Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya on August 18, 2005
Every time I hear people talk about the role of media in tackling certain
societal problems like human trafficking – which is a modern day slavery
my mind goes to some of the handicaps that face journalism in Kenya and
East Africa today.
We are not going to witness the slave trafficking drama and capture of
men, women and children in the days of Tipu Tipu in upper Lualaba enroute
to the slave market in Zanzibar! Human trafficking has become more
complex, hidden and we are now being asked to offer our services to help
Do we have a role to play in all these. My older colleagues in journalism
had taught me in my pioneer days that we are not policemen, we are not
marksmen and we are not immigration officers. We had been told that we are
reporters and we should leave activism to activists. That civic journalism
has no place. It took me years to know that we can solve some of these
problems and push them to the public domain if we want- if we have the
personal drive and if we understand the issues. From where I stand I know
where the challenge is. And that challenge is the introduction of civic
journalism in East Africa. We must embrace a journalism that is radical
and helpful. But this is not going to be an institutional choice for
Standard or Nation newspapers. It will be an individual choice.
One of the most vociferous critic of civic journalism worldwide is Brian
Williams of America’s NBC. As an old-hand Brian Williams urges reporters
to "report problems; don't try to solve them. There are other people who
have that job."
We have done that for years but who does it help? Nobody. I have been
looking through cutting on recent coverage of human trafficking in Kenya.
May be some of us recall the case of Bishop Gilbert Deya of the Miracle
Neither the police, nor the media has been able to uncover that story in
its entirety. Deya is still free in London, the children are in a
children’s home but the story has died. Yet this was a classic case that
could have pushed us to the bottom of the problem. Of course we all know
that there were no Miracle Babies but why haven’t we gone out there to
tell that story in full.
In our school of journalism they are still teaching people, not public
journalism, but reporting with the three Ws – When, Where, Who? It is an
archaic kind of journalism but it will survive because it is simple, it
does not need capital injection in terms of investigation and one does not
risk a libel suit or a bullet in the head.
But we are now being called upon to practice public service journalism and
more than ever before we are being challenged to become what everybody
says we are – The Fourth Estate.
We are the Fourth Estate because we have had other Estates- Executive,
Judiciary, and Legislature. When they all fail in their duties to help end
human trafficking we as the Fourth Estate have to do it.
It sometimes takes time for a reporter to realize and understand that the
press has a responsibility to go beyond exposing problems and to look for
solutions. I know it took time for me to realize the press has that
Arm Chair Journalism
Human Trafficking subject will not be addressed via arm-chair journalism.
Looking at the stories carried recently in The Standard, The Nation, The
People, and Kenya Times most of the coverage emanates from either a paper
given during a seminar, an arrest by police, or just simple information on
a pending bill. A lucky journalist can get a comprehensive report from a
research centre and do a story. And that is the end of it.
Now that is not coverage of the human trafficking subject. Trafficking in
women for instance involves both gender and basic human rights abuses, and
entails numerous risks. These include unsafe travel, violence (especially
sexual violence), exploitation, forcing into criminal activity and total
deprivation of access to some social services. These can make very good
We have exclusive clubs in this country and hidden private houses where
this exploitation goes on. In 1998 when I was running a small features
agency, I tried to investigate one such house located in Adam’s Arcade’s
Elgeyo Marakwet Road. One needed to have a lot of money to get to the
bottom of the story for a beer would cost 500 shillings. I managed one day
to penetrate the house and I found many Eritrean and Ethiopian girls in
the compound just whiling away in the sun and the gates locked and guarded
by a reputable company.
I could not make ends with the story because they would not talk….I
abandoned it because I was going back to school but tipped a human rights
organisation to follow it up. They never got back to me and even today I
do not know what happened.
Simplification of Subject
The media has simplified the topic that it may soon look petty. We need to
go back to the drawing board as activists and as journalists. How should
we cover this topic. Trafficking in women is often associated with forced
prostitution, where women have fallen prey to promises of well-paid jobs.
These are stories that can sell a paper given that the media owners are
looking for one thing: a thick wallet. Ho do we entice them and the public
to read these stories so that they can make impact on page One! That is
our challenge. And that is your challenge. We need to work together.
Trafficking is, however, not limited to sexual exploitation of women. We
know of women trafficked for marriage, domestic labour, bonded sweatshops
(in Europe) and other types of forced labour or enslavement. We have heard
of such houses in malindi, Mombasa, and some affluent Nairobi
neighbourhoods. But they simply remain that…. Stories.
One of the best stories I have seen of late on human trafficking was in
September 2004 by Franklin Awori of the Daily Nation. But it is a story
based on the work of a Mombasa NGO titled Ticket to Hell!
Our jobs as reporters, investigative writers has been very simple- we want
to simplify the human trafficking subject and we miss all the points, or
most of them.
We have not yet grasped that Trafficking and smuggling arise out of
economic, social and demographic conditions that encourage desperate or
ambitious people to migrate in spite of the rules and provide the
traffickers and smugglers with their illicit business opportunities. If we
have we have not used our pen and paper- and with all its might- to tell
But is this deliberate? Not at all. The capacity of the Kenyan media to
report comprehensively on this topic is limited to a few journalists who
can report more incisively and responsibly on human trafficking. But we
have to understand that with the current politicking on Constitution, the
battles between NAK and LDP and so on this is not a major crisis topic in
the newsroom and hardly interest editors because of the way it has been
We have a few writers who know about the various human rights protocols
and conventions their countries have signed and ratified and whether they
have been domesticated to become municipal laws.
The capacity to see things from a global perspective, to analyse our
single tree as part of a large forest has been lacking. So what do we do?
We need measures that can strengthen the media to continuously keep their
eye on the subject, to be creative in their analyses so that we do not
soon develop a media fatigue on the subject!
Migrant smuggling and trafficking are not new phenomena. Why, then, do
they appear to have exploded so dramatically in terms of numbers, global
reach and visibility? It has been explained – and may be you have heard it
here - about global revolutions in information, transport, trade and
investment and how this has led to human trafficking.
Globalization has brought more and more countries, and previously remote
zones of countries, into contact with the wider world. Whether drawn by
what they see abroad or pushed by what they don't see at home, the pool of
people who today would consider migrating - and who can realistically make
their wish to migrate come true - has clearly increased. When these basic
ingredients are mixed with one part rising expectations of a better
standard of living, two parts unemployment or underemployment at home, and
one part the promise of a job abroad, they make the ingredients for a
Remember the recent arrest of some Bangladeshi’s in Mombasa. Sixty seven
of them but we have yet as Media to encroach on the criminal networks that
bring forth all these.
But let me tell you one thing. These stories are not seen in newsrooms as
part of human trafficking. They are actually filed under Aliens! They
could be refugees from a war torn country or just economic refugees.
The media, as agents of change and agenda setters are capable of making
the success of eliminating human trafficking, if well informed through
special trainings, networking, collaboration and through other exposures.
Such trainings can produce vanguards and advocates in reporting in a
systematic, continuous, investigative, analytical, comprehensive and
There is also need for constant media activities which are specific,
measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Information updates will
also be through periodic media meetings with experts, workshops and
seminars. Anything that can spur journalists into more investigative
reports and tips that can arouse analytical, investigative, resourceful
and courageous write-ups.
Finally we need a merit award that is attractive collaborations can be
forged among media establishments with or without the desks. The
development of manuals/press kits and the institutionalisation of media
merit award are high points for sustainability
We need a multi-facetted approach to this problem. As journalists we need
to understand the patterns and dynamics of trafficking and smuggling if we
are to address the problem effectively. The research to inform
policy-makers and practitioners done by NGOs must also be given to the
media and packaged properly to excite the media.
The civil society has lots of information on what is happening but most of
it is used to write reports for donor funding purposes and the reports do
not excite the media for a simple reason: The media thinks it must
participate and should not be used to just report or cover a side show. We
have to be in the field as players not spectators.
There is no easy, simple media response to trafficking - in women, in
children, in human beings in general in the east African region. Our
coverage has been wanting. And we must leave the box by adopting Civic
journalism. But we must do this stories in a way that they can sell
papers- that is what a news editor wants at the bottom of the day. He
wants a story that can make a splash. Do we know of such human trafficking
stories that can make a series in a newspaper. He we are…