Vol. 3, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion
Charitable Choice and the New Religious
Religious Ironies in East Timor
Jesus, Political Philosopher
Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests
What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash
Waiting for the Shoe to Drop
The NCC's Near-Death Experience
Letters to the Editor
|On the Beat
Condoms and Constitutions: Religion News in Kenya
by Mark Fackler
The press in Kenya operates under freedoms guaranteed in Article 79 of that
countrys constitution, written in part by former Supreme Court justice Thurgood
Marshall. Churches and religious institutions, which are many and diverse in Kenya, enjoy
freedoms granted in the same document not unlike those written into the First Amendment of
the U.S. Constitution.
But press coverage of religion is affected by the same quandaries that cause many young
Kenyans to regard legal guarantees as rhetorical disguises for corruption bred of greed
and treachery at every level of the society. Newsgathering in Kenya is often called
"envelopmental journalism." Reporters are frequently handed either an actual
envelope containing money or given an equivalent small favor. No bargains are formally
cut, but mutual understanding reckons that TKK (tia kitu kidogo, give a little something)
grants the story a more positive slant and better page placement.
Political appointees and members of parliament are regular contributors to this
under-the-table exchange. Editors understand that such favors are given, and often expect
a percentage themselves. One young reporter told me that, despite his intentions to refuse
these handouts, he did in fact accept them because returning to the newsroom empty-handed
would mean no further assignments.
If media coverage follows the shillings, its not in the direction of religion.
Leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches, Kenyas leading religious movements,
are less likely to provide envelopes than political figures, for the simple reason that
they lack access to the public purse, which provides much discretionary funding for
partisan politics throughout the region. Furthermore, the churches do not depend on
positive press coverage to achieve their agenda. So with neither the wherewithal nor the
incentive to ink the presses with TKK, they must be content, on the normal news day, with
inside pages below the fold. The exception is when church leaders get directly involved in
national politics, as two recent ongoing stories abundantly demonstrated.
Constitutional reform. The legendary Jomo Kenyatta, who led the country to
independence in 1963 and became its first president, was a charismatic figure whose
genuine courage obscured many faults. The constitution he gave the country granted the
executive wide-ranging powers, including substantial control of the legislature and
judiciary. The president himself enjoys complete exemption from all legal actions, public
and private. So sweeping is presidential power that when the Kenyan Union of Journalists
(the countrys only media trade organization, to which all working journalists
belong) recently sought to draft a Code of Ethics for the profession, its first
consultation was with the Attorney General.
For several years, the Catholic and Protestant churches have called for constitutional
reform. And for as many years, a government eager to please international donors has
listened and feigned respect for such calls, only to bury the reform process in endless
bureaucratic delay. The Catholic Church, especially, has taken up a populist banner,
releasing early last fall a document aimed at fostering a grass-roots movement to
jump-start the process.
Titled "Democratisation and Constitution Making: A Participatory Civic
Manual," the document was a direct assault on the governments delaying tactics.
In a long 15-paragraph story leading the news on the day of the reports release, the
Daily Nation, largest of the countrys four daily newspapers, placed church
and state in opposition. President Daniel arap Moi was quoted to the effect that only
Parliament, not any civic group, had a mandate to amend the constitution. In a sidebar,
the president turned the rhetoric of the Church against itself when he urged all Kenyans
to "fear God and end corruption"a not-so-veiled effort to link the
countrys problems with the failure of the Church to encourage piety among its
This standoff reached a dramatic point in mid-December as the country approached its
annual independence celebration, Jamhuri Day. Traditionally, a rally at the downtown
Nairobi Nyayo Stadium features military review and a presidential speech. On this
occasion, however, opposition parties together with the Catholic Church threatened to hold
a concurrent rally at a city parka direct slap at the monopoly on public attention
normally accorded the head of state.
Newspapers reported in bold headlines, "A Triple Threat to Jamhuri Day." The Daily
Nations story began: "A cloud hangs over this years Jamhuri
Day following an array of threats. They include an alleged plan for a military mutiny,
rival rallies by opposition parties and a call by the Catholic church to boycott because
of the stalled constitutional review."
The lede is fascinating, since the "alleged" mutiny plan was widely thought
to have been concocted by the ruling party itself to inspire public panic over disruption
of the presidents rally. A day later, diocesan officials emphatically denied
complicity in the affair, disowning boycott calls and insisting the Church had not turned
itself into an opposition party.
The following day Kenyas most respected journalism professor, Joe Kadhi of the
University of Nairobi, scolded Catholic leaders in his Daily Nation column for
failing to understand "the mentality and beliefs of the ordinary wananchi
[citizen]"implying that Catholic leadership was far out in front of
constituents on matters of political change. All this, meanwhile, was taking place
alongside another religion-and-politics story, this one guaranteed to sell more papers and
attract more readership.
Condoms. An estimated 800,000 Kenyans have died of AIDS, with four million more
(out of a total population of 28 million people) believed to be infected with HIV. Much
foreign money has been invested in the AIDS battle without appreciable results, and
Kenyans remain extremely reticent about addressing matters of sexuality.
Until early December, President Moi supported a "dont talk, dont
tell" policy that appeased church leaders who believe that the primary effect of
condoms is promiscuity. Then, two weeks before Jamhuri Day, he dramatically reversed
himself, strongly urging all Kenyans to use condoms and telling Catholic leaders to be
realistic: "I am president of the Christians and the drunkards. I am responsible for
all. I say use condoms!"
It was, declared the Daily Nation, Mois "most robust and sustained
criticism of the Catholics yet." The paper went on to describe the "furious
storm" now raging over the states "head-on collision" with the Church
on this delicate issue of sexual practice. A lead editorial in the East Africa Standard,
Nairobis oldest newspaper and second in circulation to the Daily Nation,
assailed the Churchs position: Its clerical hierarchy was "entitled to its
opinion on any subject under the sun but with all due respect their prescription of
piousness in the face of AIDS is feeble beyond belief. The Catholic church is not
infallible. AIDS is incurable. Condoms prevent HIV transmission. Use condoms. Amen."
The battle lines were set. The press would place this religion story inside the larger
constitutional drama. But in this framed opposition of church and state, one religious
voice got the final word. To understand why, it is necessary to consider who owns the
Kenyan news media.
While Protestant missionaries established the regions first presses and
newspapers, Middle East prosperity has put Kenyas present-day media under the
ownership of expatriate Muslims, who, despite their immense resources, must negotiate
constantly with the state for import licenses to run their operations. The relationship
works both ways. Muslim money builds schools and hospitals in Kenyadoing good for
the people and easing the states burden to provide services. The state processes ink
and paper through the port of Mombasa, legendary for its graft and inefficiency.
Do the Kenyan media show favor toward Muslims? Protestants are still Kenyas
religious majority, though their largest church, the Africa Inland Church, is sidelined
from political involvement by virtue of the presidents membership in it and the many
benefits to Church leaders that membership affords. The Catholic voice leads with frequent
calls for democratic reform. The Muslim presence is everywhere evident, but news coverage
is not skewed in any obvious way.
This much, however, is apparent. As the muted Protestant voice and the vigorous
Catholic voice struggle between themselves and the state, the minority Muslim voice is
often cited in the press with a kind of prophetic finality that suggests the gavel has
sounded and the question is closed.
In the AIDS story, for example, the Daily Nation went to Skeikh Khalif,
secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims, who said: "Muslims are
opposed to the use of condoms for this will boost promiscuity. We cannot bend Gods
laws to make them conform to the passions of man." Remarkably, there were no
editorial replies, and no framing of this response in the typical church-state standoff
that characterizes coverage of the majority faiths.
As the Muslim-owned Nation Media Group opens markets in commercial radio and
television, East African media watchers will want to track programming formats and
broadcast news trends to understand more fully the subtle but troublesome role ownership
plays in framing the regions religion news. East Africa observes no "wall of
separation" between church and state, and there is no defined secular sphere where
public policy is properly negotiated. Religion is central to life. Will it remain a vital
element in Kenyas struggling democratic experiment?
The year 2002 will be pivotal. President Moi has promised to retire.
Kenyan elections have rarely been peaceful, and those scheduled for that autumn could
be a watershed for civic participation, multi-party debate, and media freedom. The
countrys churches and mosques will play their part, and the daily press will be the
primary vehicle for taking their voices beyond parochial centers and into the public