When the story broke on Sunday evening, the “facts” were scanty. I put the word facts in quotation marks because, as the story unfolded, the word would become less and less relevant to the narrative.
Sunday Nation’s reporter Walter Menya was arrested for apparently soliciting a bribe in order to “kill” a story implicating Kenya’s civil servants actively involved in Friends of Jubilee Foundation.
In a statement on Sunday, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet said: “He has been demanding for money severally to kill the alleged story. At different times he has received a total of Sh35,000 through M-pesa (mobile money transfer) and today he was arrested receiving Sh20,000.”
Later, “unauthenticated” phone recordings revealed that the journalist was in communication with a Kennedy Koros who had apparently given him the story and wanted to pay Walter to publish the story “on the front page”.
This, mind you, was in direct contradiction to what Mr Boinnet had said earlier, that Walter was demanding a bribe to kill the story. But few people cared about the devil in the details of the story at this point.
Walter was eventually released two days later, although his laptop and flash disks remained in police custody pending a separate determination. The details of the reasoning behind that decision were also scanty. All we know is that the Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko directed that the journalist be released on a free bond without being charged.
Since then, the conversation has mostly been about how the government is suppressing media freedom. For some reason, no one seems interested in the facts of what actually took place. They seem irrelevant.
What we know so far is that Walter Menya was “baited” by a Mr Koros, although there is currently no evidence that he actually received the alleged bribe. What Mr Koros did was clearly wrong, but what about what Mr Menya did? Who gets to tell the story of the fact that the journalist still took the bait even if he never took the actual money?
It is my personal belief that accepting a fake bribe is a statement about the moral and ethical culpability of the person taking the bait. To that extent, I think Mr Menya still has much to answer for, even if the law of the land is not the entity he owes that explanation.
To Walter’s credit, he wasn’t being paid to kill a story or publish a fake story, contrary to the I.G.’s initial statement. He was being bribed to do his job. This is not something new. But it is something worth further pondering by those in the media fraternity.
In my brief stint in the newsroom (where I worked closely with Walter), I was severally approached by news sources who had legitimate stories with legitimate evidence and still wanted to give me money to write the story. Oftetimes the story was good and the evidence strong and I would have written it whether or not I was “incentivised”. This is what makes Walter’s situation so perplexing.
Some people may look at the fact that he seemed to accept the proposed money (if not the actual money) as proof that he would be willing to do the same to write a fake story or suppress a true one. But there is no way of knowing this. If someone wants to give me money as an incentive to do what I would have done anyway, I am not sure accepting that money is evidence of my susceptibility to moral or ethical compromise.
This is a tough ethical quandary. Journalists should not brush off or dismiss it so easily. This is also why I think I am Walter Menya in this story. I also believe many good journalists who would never take a bribe to kill a story or write a fake story would have taken this particular money.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the episode has told us little, if anything, about the state of journalism in Kenya. It has told us practically nothing about who Walter Menya is and whether he should be trusted as a journalist. If anything, it has only revealed the extent some political forces would go to compromise good journalism.
I happen to think that this episode was a classic case of a red herring being used to distract us from the story that Walter Menya actually wrote. Perhaps the people behind Kennedy Koros figured out the story would be damaging to Jubilee, and the only way to distract people from making noise about it was to divert attention to the journalist’s ethical standing.
Someone probably figured out that the story would get out anyway, so why not be the one to give the evidence and compromise the one journalist who would write the story?
Clearly, its a jungle out there. I am sad that Walter had to go through all this. You didn’t deserve it, my friend. However, let this serve as a lesson to all of us with the opportunity to tell our stories on national platforms. It is easy to be a pawn in someone else’s elaborate scheme. May we be diligent enough to spot the bait and resist it when we can.