Kenyans suspend skepticism amid Nairobi attack. But we should know better

On Tuesday afternoon, terrorists stormed DusitD2, an upscale hotel and office complex in the heart of Nairobi. Within an hour, security forces had cordoned off the area, evacuated nearby buildings and launched an operation to confront the attackers and rescue people.

Given the security forces’ performance during previous attacks, this was a huge improvement. Five years ago, during a terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall, it was a different story. As described in a reconstruction by Tristan McConnell, by the time security agencies organized a response, “most of those who would escape had already escaped; most of those who would be wounded had already been struck; and most of those who would die were already dead.”

Sadly, the government’s communications efforts this time did not match its security response. While there was no repeat of the initial contradiction, chaos and confusion during Westgate, there was a familiar effort to speak while saying nothing. In all, the government held just four news briefings during the 17-hour siege and gave no casualty figures or information about the attackers. The media was pushed away from the scene early on, so hours after the start of the rescue, we were still in the dark about what was going on.

At around midnight, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i falsely declared that “all buildings have been secured.” The media dutifully repeated this even as gunfire and explosions continued throughout the night and into the early morning. It was as though we were back at Westgate, where journalists were wont to simply regurgitate what the government was telling them.

In 2013, it was ordinary Kenyans on social media who called out the government on the inconsistencies in its communications. Along with several others, I helped to crowdsource a set of 85 questions that citizens wanted answers to. Yet this time, Kenyans on Twitter, or @KOT, were for the most part reluctant to challenge the government’s narrative. For most, the priority was supporting the security forces as they battled to rescue those trapped inside. While understandable, this attitude conflated the misleading statements of bureaucrats with the heroic actions of the security agents risking their lives in the hotel, suggesting that to criticize the former was to undermine the latter.

Further, Kenya’s government is notoriously unreliable when it comes to issuing information on terrorist attacks. During Westgate, nearly everything government officials said turned out to be false. They maintained an elaborate fiction of fighting terrorists while the military looted the mall. The attack on DusitD2 came on the third anniversary of the sacking of a camp in the Somali town of El Adde, which was manned by Kenyan peacekeepers. The government has refused to disclose the number of casualties it suffered, although it is thought to be at least 173. Its version of what happened was greatly exaggerated to include three massive truck bombs and “truckloads of suicide bombers” (al-Shabab propaganda video of the attack shows just one suicide vehicle bomber), the idea being to shield the state from accusations of incompetence.

In both cases, promises of tell-all inquiries were shelved once the crisis had passed.

Government Twitter accounts have been deployed to urge citizens to stick to the official line and not to share any “unverified” information. Mainstream media regurgitated this, too. When President Uhuru Kenyatta finally announced that the DusitD2 attack had been extinguished and all the attackers killed, aside from the demand to know the number of terrorists, there was little recognition of the fact that he had said the same thing regarding the Westgate attackers and it had all turned out to be another lie. Back then, he said the security forces had killed five terrorists when we now know there were only four attackers. The government later claimed to have handed over all four bodies to the FBI; the agency said only three sets of remains were recovered. (One of those sets turned out not to match the DNA of known family members of the terrorist it was claimed to belong to.)

Toeing the government line wasn’t the only thing @KOT got wrong. When the New York Times published a photograph showing the bodies of two people killed in the attack, then tried to justify it by claiming that it wanted to give its readers “a real sense of the situation,” @KOT blew up. Many pointed out the hypocrisy and double standards. Where, they rightly asked, were the pictures of bodies from the many mass shootings in the United States?

However, @KOT’s fury soon focused on one person, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, the incoming East Africa Bureau chief for the Times, whose article contained the offending photograph. The hashtag #deportkimiko was soon trending despite her assertion that she was not responsible for decisions on what photographs to use. But the mob was not interested in logic and reasons. They wanted blood. However, as a Twitter thread by author and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola pointed out, the environment it generated could have dangerous implications for the practice of critical journalism in Kenya.

Clearly, there is a need for caution during a crisis. But Kenyans can do better than blindly trusting in a government that routinely lies and taking out their frustrations on a journalist just doing her job.

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.

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