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Media must cut through witness spin on police brutality reports

Journalists reporting casualty figures from police brutality face similar problems whether in America or Kenya.

Such reporting is often done “after the fact” and the journalists have to rely on information from the police, eyewitnesses and relatives of the victims to determine what happened.

That often results in confusion and uncertainties.

ELECTION

This is what has happened in the current controversy with regard to the violence that broke out in Kisumu and Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi after Nasa rejected the presidential election results.

We do not know the exact number of people who were killed, because of the conflicting reports by the media and the police, as well as victims or their relatives.

The media have been unable to cut through the confusion, denials, exaggerations and spin of the various actors and interested parties.

DEATHS

In reports published on Saturday, Nasa claimed that more than 100 people had been killed by police in the protests.

But one media report said 12 people, including a 10-year-old girl shot dead in Mathare Area 2, have been killed in Nairobi and Kisumu.

Yet another media report said 14 people had been killed, including 10 shot dead in Mathare, two in Migori and two in Kisumu between Friday and Saturday.

The same report said earlier two children suffocated to death after tear gas was fired at protesters in Mathare Area 10, and two men were shot dead.

CIVIL STRIFE

But acting Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i denied the police had killed any protester.

We know from history that battle or civil strife casualties are difficult to ascertain either because of the confusion or unverifiable narratives given by authorities and law enforcement, or because the eyewitnesses might not have been available or able to give an objective account.

That is why we don’t know for sure how many people were killed in the Rwanda genocide in 1994, though most accounts have settled on a figure of 800,000.

In Kenya, we do not know exactly how many people died during the Mau Mau uprising.

PROPAGANDA

It’s fashionable to exaggerate, deny or downplay casualty figures for propaganda purposes, political or even financial gain.

That’s why, for example, holocaust revisionism – denying the genocide of Jews and other groups after the Second Word War – has persisted.

That’s why Rwanda has a similar phenomenon of genocide denial.

The tendency to exaggerate is common when there is something to be gained.

For example, it was often said that Kibera is the “biggest slum in Africa” until 2009, when the French Institute for Research in Africa and Keyobs, a Belgian firm, using geographical information systems (GIS) methodology and a ground survey established that there were 200,000 residents, instead of the 700,000 to one million figures that were often quoted.

FACTS

The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census confirmed the findings.

Hopefully, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, which has promised to investigate what happened during the protests, will shed light on the casualty figures and whether there was police brutality.

Ipoa chairman Macharia Njeru has said he will rely on “evidence and facts”.

COMMUNICATION

In the meantime, there are useful lessons in the confusion.

One is that the police need to streamline their public communication and to realise that transparency is the best policy.

It is, of course, true that police tend to defend their own and officers may even lie.

But that’s why Ipoa was set up to provide civilian oversight over the work of the police and prevent impunity.

MEDIA

Another lesson is that the media need to do more than just listen to narratives from interested players.

Every report needs to be rigorously cross-checked.

If it’s not possible to do so immediately, the media stories should carry qualifiers such as “unverified reports”, “unconfirmed reports”, “according information available so far”, and so on.

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