ROSE LUKALO is a seasoned journalist with experience in print, broadcast and digital media. She began her career in journalism in the late 1980s when being a free-thinking journalist or creative in Kenya was hazardous, if not life-threatening. Rose advocates for free expression, media diversity and inclusion, and has served as the Chairperson of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). In 2022, she was the recipient of the Media Council of Kenya’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Rose spoke to RASNA WARAH about her experiences as a media practitioner, and the many challenges that women journalists face, including new emerging threats on social media.
Q.You have been an ardent advocate of gender sensitivity in journalism and in newsrooms. What kinds of issues and concerns do you have regarding gender when it comes to reporting the news and in making newsrooms more women-friendly?
We simply must have more women’s voices speaking on as many topics as possible through the news media. That’s the bottom line. The lack of representation of women in media has led to a lack of visibility and recognition of their contributions in society, their ideas and their needs. This then results in what we are seeing today – the perpetuation of inequalities between women and men despite changes in law and policy, and despite dozens of judicial rulings that favour women.
We underestimate the real potential and power of the media and yet studies all over the world have shown that the media has the ability to influence how we view ourselves and others. It impacts our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, the food we eat, the clothes were wear, the language we speak. By controlling what stories are told (or not told) and how they are told, the media actually creates our cultural norms. Therefore, it is crucial that the media is diverse, responsible, and represents a wide range of perspectives and experiences – particularly those of women and girls who constitute half the population – if it is to ensure that its impact on society is positive and inclusive. Inclusion of women’s voices in the diversity of perspectives and experiences in the media helps to challenge the stereotypes and biases that continue to shape women’s lives and will result in a better informed and more equitable society. It makes the invisible visible and ensures that women’s voices are heard in discussions and decision-making processes that affect them and that their perspectives and needs are considered. We must do whatever it takes to get more women’s voices in media and avoid treating gender as a gimmick.
Q.Sexual harassment has been identified by the Association of Media Women in Kenya as a major challenge facing women journalists in Kenya. Do you think the situation has improved for women journalists or is sexual harassment still a major impediment to women seeking a career in media?
The fact that we are discussing the sexual harassment of women journalists publicly is itself a sign that something has shifted even if I would not say the situation has improved. Sexual harassment remains a significant problem for female journalists and can be a major impediment to their careers in media and the reason many leave the profession. I know that AMWIK has done a lot around awareness raising about the issue, including training and preparing a model draft sexual harassment policy for media organisations that might not have the resources to write their own from scratch. A few of the larger media houses have already adopted their own. There are also a growing number of male journalists who are championing safer spaces for women journalists in Kenya, and that is especially encouraging. Some progress has been made, but much more needs to be done to create safe and supportive working environments for female journalists. We must also not lose sight of the link between sexual harassment and the way in which women are perceived in society; unless we address the socialisation of women and men and speak to societal norms, the problem will persist. Sexual harassment is simply a symptom of the underlying values that continue to be accepted and to operate in our context.
Q.Technology has made it much easier for women to become citizen journalists, but studies show that women are more likely to be harassed and trolled on social media than men. In many countries, women journalists have been threatened and some have even been killed for their reporting. What can women do to make the social media space safer for themselves?
Personal safety online has become an acute concern for women but that does not mean that the problem of making online spaces safer should fall to women alone. There are many global initiatives addressing online safety and key among these is a call for online platforms – particularly the social media platforms – to make their spaces safe for women and the platforms are beginning to take small positive steps. Some of the measures taken to date include strengthening community guidelines and providing easier mechanisms for reporting harassment, along with expanded teams to review such incidents and to take appropriate action. These platforms are also developing tools to help users block or mute harassing behaviour, and some are testing artificial intelligence to identify harassment as soon as it happens and delete it.
In addition to cooperating with these global technology companies, there is also a major role for the Government of Kenya to play in educating the public about the dangers online, and most importantly, in enforcing the laws we already have and punishing anyone who harasses others online; we rarely see the perpetrators punished and that allows it to flourish.
But women can take practical measures to protect themselves by limiting the personal information they share online, including their full names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, banking information and photos or videos, especially those that include family members and children. Strong passwords are also important for all online accounts, and it is critical to report any incident of online harassment to the platform or website, as well as to the police and to take screenshots of the abuse in case it is later deleted. Women can find many resources online that will help them learn how to protect themselves online.
Q.In 1991, when you were the News Editor at KTN, you were fired by KTN’s Chairman (who also happened to be President Daniel arap Moi’s lawyer), Jared Kangwana, for airing the resignation of Mwai Kibaki from Moi’s cabinet. Kibaki then went on to form his own party to contest Moi in the next election. Would you say that was a defining moment in your journalistic career, and if so, how? And when you look back, why do you think Moi was so upset by your decision yet the print media went on to report the news the next day anyway?
That Christmas Day, 25 December 1991 and the following weeks were pivotal in defining who I have become. The incident itself gave me a clear and deep appreciation of the relationship between absolute power and the lives of ordinary people – how easy it is for misplaced power to be used to destroy lives. That was the moment I began to understand the overriding role of the political economy and to appreciate the importance of having good leadership and accountable people in government. I realised I was living in a country where truth is not generally valued and that anyone in the way of the blind ambition of Moi was fair game.
I was quickly surrounded by concerned human rights activists and lawyers, with Pheroze Nowrojee offering to represent me pro bono, and Paul Muite seeking me out to find out if I needed any support. I also had audience with Mwai Kibaki. A whole world of people I would never have met came into view standing in solidarity for the defence of my rights to free expression and media, including the likes of Paddy Onyango, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, Mwachengu wa Mwachofi, Kaara Kiama, Murtaza Jaffer, Gitobu Imanyara, Davinder Lamba, Prof. Wangari Maathai, Achoka Awori, Irungu Houghton, Ndungi Githuku, Zein Abubaker and so many others. I learned that there is a body of people whose lives are given to building a country that works for everyone, leaving no-one behind.
At that time, they were in the throes of crafting the path to what would eventually become the review of the constitution of Kenya, even as resistance to Moi’s rule grew and protests around issues surrounding land, the environment, ethnic cleansing, political prisoners and detention without trial became the norm. In their world, I witnessed multiple acts of incredible bravery – too many to mention – as individuals stood up to Moi’s lengthy rule. Most of them were detained, some were hounded into exile, others tortured and all faced court cases aimed at trying to break them.
However, the moment when I was fired was very confusing, and for days I couldn’t wrap my head around losing my job for reporting the truth. It turned out to be a bigger moment than I thought it was when it happened, and the experiences that followed left me with a sense of empowerment and hope for Kenya that sustains me today even in moments when everything looks bleak. That’s where I get my interest in doing my little bit to create positive change in the media and in the community where I live. It feeds my strong belief we must build a country in which every Kenyan is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their background or circumstances.
As to why Moi was so upset with me, I believe I happened to have wandered into a space he liked to control. Up until that point, Moi’s control over his cabinet had been absolute. He never allowed his ministers to resign and probably had intelligence reports that would alert him so that he could fire them first and give the impression that they were at fault. Like I said, I got in the way that day and that probably made him mad. I must add that I think they did not know what to do with me. I wasn’t formally fired on that day – just told to leave the station. The letter dismissing me came on January 9th the following year.
Q.The recent unfortunate death of Catherine Kasavuli from ovarian cancer highlighted the plight of many veterans in the media sector in Kenya who end up in dire circumstances, either because they are not properly remunerated by their media organisations or because they don’t have sufficient medical cover. Catherine was a famous and very beloved news anchor in the 1990s and beyond, but many were shocked to learn that her family struggled to pay her medical bill at Kenyatta National Hospital. Ironically, when she was alive, not many bothered to help her with her bill, but when she died, all manner of politicians donated large amounts of money for her funeral. Why do you think so many media practitioners in Kenya – even those who are highly successful – fall by the wayside after a certain age despite their tremendous contribution to their profession?
The welfare of media practitioners has always been a great concern. The theoretical understanding of the important role played by the media never matches the remuneration given to those working in the sector, yet without them the public’s right to know and the democratic principles that allow for informed decision making would be severely curtailed. The welfare of media practitioners is also essential for the protection of press freedom, which is a cornerstone of democratic societies but is so often overlooked. So, we have media businesses that profit off the backs of the work that journalists and media practitioners do but pay little attention to their welfare.
For example, look at the role journalists played during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That has already been forgotten. They were out there in the streets, volunteering to enter isolation wards in hospitals despite the risk to their lives, just to bring back accurate information, and then they would have to quarantine putting their families and loved ones at risk so they would not infect their colleagues at work. Quite a few ended up infected. In the early days, news reports showed that all the political leaders (who earn stupendous amounts of money) remained locked up in their houses, afraid to venture out until the media called them out. Those lessons are already forgotten – until the next crisis. I think it’s time that media practitioners make an effort to own the business and pay themselves properly because no one cares what happens to them.
Q.What advice would you give to young women aspiring to become journalists or media practitioners in an era where mainstream media is slowly losing its appeal and audiences and where journalists are increasingly under threat from authoritarian regimes?
Despite all its challenges, the media is still one of the most rewarding professions for those seeking to make a difference in the world, and there is a joy and satisfaction in knowing that you are able to play a direct role in shaping the future of a nation. Simply by presenting accurate and impartial information, media women have already shown that they can empower communities, change attitudes to gender-based violence in homes and hold those in power accountable on a daily basis. It is also a powerful way to grow your own sphere of influence as more people grow to trust the information you share and follow your byline. It may be difficult to find a job initially or an opportunity to be paid for your media products, but so many young people are finding entry into media by initially publishing themselves on social media from where they get recognised and picked up by the mainstream media. While the industry may be facing challenges, perseverance, dedication to one’s craft, and a commitment to ethics will help aspiring women succeed in the news media space and make a positive impact.
The world needs more women in the media.