Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

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 country’s 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, it’s not in the direction of religion. Leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches, Kenya’s 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 country’s 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 government’s delaying tactics. In a long 15-paragraph story leading the news on the day of the report’s release, the Daily Nation, largest of the country’s 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 country’s problems with the failure of the Church to encourage piety among its followers.

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 park—a 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 Nation’s story began: "A cloud hangs over this year’s 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 president’s 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 Kenya’s 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 "don’t talk, don’t 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, Moi’s "most robust and sustained criticism of the Catholics yet." The paper went on to describe the "furious storm" now raging over the state’s "head-on collision" with the Church on this delicate issue of sexual practice. A lead editorial in the East Africa Standard, Nairobi’s oldest newspaper and second in circulation to the Daily Nation, assailed the Church’s 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 region’s first presses and newspapers, Middle East prosperity has put Kenya’s 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 Kenya—doing good for the people and easing the state’s 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 Kenya’s religious majority, though their largest church, the Africa Inland Church, is sidelined from political involvement by virtue of the president’s 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 God’s 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 region’s 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 Kenya’s 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 country’s 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 conversation.