Media / Watchdog
Sunday, 29 Jan 2017 12:05 EATnewsdesk@kenyafreepress.com
The Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard have carried two conflicting reports on Friday’s attack on the Kenya Defence Forces camp in Kulbiyow, Somalia, that have been widely debated by media professionals and lay Kenyans alike. The articles triggered discussion on social media reflecting not only Kenya’s political fault lines but delving on the role media should play in times of national crisis.
A summation of the public views is that the Nation is promoting a form of loyalty to the government premised on unconditional support for the military during this crisis while the Standard attempts to inform Kenyans about what happened. The Nation’s report went beyond journalistic remit to use superlative adjectives like “heroes” fighting “gallantly” to describe the KDF response to Kulbiyow attack, leaving little room for understanding what actually happened.
The Standard, meanwhile, delved into the facts of the attack, that ironically were availed to the Nation as well, to bring an account about the truth of rampant incompetence underlining Kenya’s increasing military losses in Somalia. The Nation’s article can be accessed here and the Standard one here.
“Fresh details have emerged of how Kenyan soldiers fought gallantly for at least six hours on Friday to ward off a deadly attack from hundreds of Al-Shabaab militants during a deadly dawn attack at a base in Kulbiyow, Somalia,” reads the Nation’s introduction.
The intro is followed by a quote from the military spokesman indicating that the “bodies of the dead soldiers had been flown to Nairobi while the injured were receiving treatment at the Forces Memorial Hospital.. and the next of kin of the fallen heroes as well as the injured soldiers were notified and plans to support them were established in line with the Defence Forces Standing Orders”.
The paper then goes to highlight the visit by the cabinet secretary of defence Raychelle Omamo to survivors of the attack recuperating at the Forces Memorial Hospital and another visit to the Kulbiyow base by two military commanders. By the time the Nation gets to the killings, it says “it remained unclear how many KDF soldiers, operating under Amisom, died in the attack”, then tries to understand the mystery from a KDF statement that “put the number at nine”.
The paper obtained information indicating that the ambush and the fight used “tactics similar to those applied during the El-Adde attack in January last year”. The paper’s sources informed it that, “All the soldiers at the camp were barely three weeks into the mission having arrived at the turn of the New Year and it is believed Al-Shaabab thought they would catch them off-guard like during the El-Adde attack last year.”
These facts, however, are not used in their proper context which would be to inquire whether any lesson was learnt from the El Adde attack. The paper in fact shows unwittingly that this attack was more preventable, only that proper action seemed not to have been taken. “Unlike El-Adde where there was a communication breakdown, Kulbiyow, which is close to the Kenyan border, has both Airtel and Somali’s Hormud cellular networks. The military also has its own communication channels which were used to call for help.”
While not raising inconvenient questions, the article is rich in pro-military spin. “The military says it had prior intelligence Al-Shaabab would attempt an attack on a Kenyan camp to commemorate the first anniversary of the El-Adde battle and was, therefore, on high alert.”
An obvious question would be what did the soldiers do? In the next sentence, the paper quotes a military source saying, “El-Adde was the way it was because we didn’t know. This time they only managed to reach the camp because they used a different route not that the soldiers were not aware”. In the words of a journalist interviewed by the Kenya Free Press, this is a classic case of a well-armed night guard defending himself from not countering a preventable attack by saying the thieves did not come through the main gate.
By contrast, the Standard in its very opening began by highlighting the question most Kenyans wanted an answer for: the number of soldiers killed. “At least 68 Kenyan soldiers were killed in the Friday dawn attack on their camp by Al Shabaab militants in Somalia,” the paper’s introduction reported, citing military sources.
“Two platoons consisting of 72 men survived after their commanders ordered that they retreat, in a possible tactical error in which the other two platoon took on the attackers, suffering massively before the camp was overrun. A company, in military terms, has four platoons, each with 36 men,” the second paragraph reported.
The paper went ahead to give graphic details of how the ambush happened, detailing the horror of the fight, and number of casualties and the transfer of survivors to hospitals. As did the Nation, the Standard reports that the “attack closely mirrored last year’s ambush at El Adde, where 173 soldiers were killed”.
“Actual losses from the Kolbiyow attack were more than what the terror group — known for exaggerating its successes—had earlier reported at 57. It was a rare understatement, perhaps on account of not having enough space and time to assess the damage caused as the distress calls were promptly responded to,” the report held.
Another similarity with the Nation's set of facts is the finding that the soldiers were new at the camp, only that the Standard gives more detail. “Men drawn from the 75 Kenya Rifles (KR) in Embakasi had only last month been withdrawn from the camp, which is close to the Kenyan border, to be replaced by platoons from Mariakani Barracks — known in the Kenyan military circles as 15 KR.”
Rather than painting a bleak picture, the paper highlights some tactical steps the commanders took to save lives once the camp was overran. “Unlike in the El Adde ambush, two commanders ordered their troops to retreat and take cover before making a formation to take on the enemy. It is military tradition to stick to your platoon and take instructions only from your commander. This is how men who may have been together were separated, and possibly the difference between life and death.
“Details of how far the platoons that retreated made it still remain scanty, but the commanders were in constant communication with their seniors in Kenya who sent through the back-up forces. After the special forces arrived, the officers returned to the camp, which had by then been overrun and burnt. There are also unconfirmed claims that the militants escaped with vehicles and arms confiscated from the camp before the backup arrived. Generally, the militants replenish their food and arms stocks when staging such attacks.”
According to journalism lecturer Nathan Masambu, “Knowing how many of our sons have died in this attack should have been the priority for journalists. Based on that we decide what next, what do we do? This is a discussion that can flow naturally from media reporting without the media jumping the gun.”
Mr Masambu drew parallels with U.S. reporting during the Vietnam War. “If you recall America withdrew from the Vietnam war because of media reporting. You can’t twist facts, especially in this period of social media. Now we know there is a crisis meeting, was that caused by nine deaths?
"The security of our camps is also an issue. Every time there is a change of guard, we are attacked. Are there road barriers to our camps? Even in our own Kenyan prisons, there is a watchtower from where wardens can monitor movements within and outside the prison. In a foreign land we expect better protection,” said Mr Masambu, who teaches at Daystar University.
Kirwa arap Magut, a political analyst who strongly supports the government, triggered a vibrant debate through a Facebook post in which he commended the Nation for “celebrating the valour and gallantry of our soldiers” while condemning the Standard for “reporting how KDF lost dozens!”
In response to Mr Magut, John Njenga differed strongly: “The attack clearly shows incompetence due to corruption among commanders. This is the time to speak the truth and not sanitize disaster. The Standard clearly states that the commanders are in a crisis. That is journalism we want based on truth but not half-truths. Nation is reporting half-truths to curry favor with government and protect ad revenue from government agencies.”
Bernard Ngetich wrote: “The Standard media reports it the way it is, they can’t be lured in the public relations gimmicks with the government, they stand for the truth and not the lies perpetuated by the army spokesperson when families are seriously mourning.” Albert Kipsang also wrote, “We lose dear ones in KDF frequently not because the enemy is smart but due to lack of proper leadership. The buck stops with the commander in chief."
Hassan Kulundu, a media and law expert, took issue with the Nation’s choice of words. “You are only a gallant soldier if you took the war to the enemy and came back triumphantly. In the case of Kulbiyow, the enemy brought the war to our doorstep, and we sustained casualties, there is no gallantry,” he said.
Mr Kulundu believes the media should press for greater accountability over the war. “Kenya’s mission in Somalia is in its sixth year and the media reportage of this engagement should have moved from patriotism to accountability. We cannot be talking about patriotism six years into a campaign whose endgame is not in sight,” he said.