When Reporting the News Causes Trauma
Journalists in Kenya are often exposed to traumatic events, including the coverage of acute human anguish.
“I have a video on my phone of police officers burning a suspected cattle rustler in Laikipia. There are videos and images which if I were to show you, you would not believe this is Kenya,” remarked a journalist during a recent roundtable in Nairobi, held by Internews to understand and share how trauma affects journalists’ mental health.
In addition to bearing witness to human suffering, journalists sometimes find themselves in situations where their lives are in imminent danger.
Human Rights Watch and Article 19, in their report titled “‘Not Worth The Risk’: Threats To Free Expression Ahead of Kenya’s 2017 Elections,” highlighted 17 incidents in which 23 journalists and bloggers were physically assaulted between 2013 and 2017 by government officials, police, county governors, and other government officials.
Despite receiving formal complaints from journalists, police have rarely investigated such attacks or threats. According to the report, there is no evidence of any security officer or public official being held accountable for threatening, intimidating, or physically attacking a member of the media in Kenya since President Uhuru Kenyatta took office in 2013.
This year, Kenyan media have reported multiple attacks on journalists. Some incidents were instigated by local communities who accused journalists of broadcasting or printing stories that were purportedly fake or inaccurate, as was in the case in Turkana where community members attacked journalists on two separate occasions.
During the psycho-social roundtable event, Kenyan journalists recounted such traumatic experiences, including the harassment they experienced while covering Kenya’s 2017 general and repeat Presidential elections in different parts of the country. Some of the journalists noted that they were attacked by security personnel and by supporters of political candidates, on the assumption that the journalists were aligned to their opponents.
One journalist, for instance, said he declined showing his identity card and press card when asked to do so by opposition protesters in Nairobi for fear that, on the basis of his name, ethnicity and presumed political leanings, he would be beaten and his camera destroyed. He felt his only option was to leave the area as soon as he saw an opportunity to do so.
In another incident streamed live on television, Citizen TV journalist Francis Gachuri was roughed up by supporters of opposition coalition NASA when he went to cover a press conference. In a show of support and protest, journalists covering the event staged a walk out and the NASA Communications Director Philip Etale ultimately apologized to the media.
A first step: seeking help
The February roundtable was organized as a follow-up to a forum on journalists’ safety held by Internews in Nairobi in January 2018, in which KTN journalist Duncan Khaemba narrated his near-death experiences while covering the 2017 elections, where he was attacked and arrested.
Speaking to the journalists, Annabel Iraki, the Head of Human Resources at Mediamax Limited, one of the leading media houses in the country, challenged journalists not to suppress traumatic experiences. “Remember you are a human being first before being a journalist,” she emphasized.
Dinah Kituyi, a psychologist with the nonprofit IREX, affirmed that as a result of attacks and challenging experiences faced by journalists, their quality of work and inter-personal relationships are affected. Yet there are little efforts to provide emotional and psychological support to journalists in media houses. “Mental health issues are as important as physical security,” she stated.
Ms. Kituyi took the journalists through the way the brain functions, to explain the impact of traumatic experiences on mental health. She advised that seeking psychological help, including sharing experiences with colleagues, should underpin their day-to-day work. Failure to do so would lead to journalists feeling emotionally drained by the issues they cover, negatively affecting both their work and life outside of work.
Ms. Kituyi advocated for journalists to employ strategies to better protect themselves and reduce risk of exposure and physical harm, including digital and physical security protection trainings. She urged them to install apps like cameraV, a mobile application that conceals photos and restricts access to images, to protect against anyone who wants to seize a journalist’s phones to delete or tamper with photos.
Asked whether they had ever attended such an event before, only one journalist out of 38 raised his hand, underscoring the need for more mental health forums for journalists across the country. “We leave here with rich knowledge on how we can better protect ourselves, even without professional counseling services,” said one participant, alluding to the importance of engaging in group support with colleagues in the newsroom and sharing traumatic reporting experiences.
As a result of this roundtable event, journalists working with Mediamax made a commitment to take advantage of the counseling services that the organization provides to staff through a professional counseling company in Nairobi, while other participants committed to speaking to their editors and managers to get their buy-in on the need for psycho-social support services in newsrooms.
By Shitemi Khamadi, Roundtables and Forums Coordinator, and Wakio Mbogho, Journalism Trainer with Internews in Kenya. Internews’ work on journalist security and psychosocial health is supported by USAID and Freedom House.
(Banner photo: Standard newspaper’s journalist Kiundu Waweru on assignment in Nairobi’s Mathare slums in 2012. He has since joined Internews as a health media trainer, Health Voices Amplified project. Credit: Kate Holt)