, 25 March, 2020 / 6:54 AM
The recent negative media framing of the Church in Kenya as “a weak link” and “an agent of death” has been condemned and termed unethical, with a section of Catholics in the East African nation calling on the institution that regulates media standards, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), to sanction the implicated media outlets.
The reaction follows the editorial decision by two leading newspapers in Kenya, Daily Nation and The Standard, to devote the prominent pages of their respective Monday, March 23 editions to headlines and narratives that painted the Church in negative light, prompted by the Catholic Bishops’ collective stance that “Churches will remain open” for public Mass.
In their March 19 message, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) announced that Churches would remain open as “the focal point of prayer, where you will find solace and strength from God” even as the government had suspended public gatherings.
Daily Nation, which carried the headline “Church, the weak link,” devoted the first six pages to this negative framing of the followers of Christ in a country where Christianity is the predominant religion accounting for an estimated 84.8 percent of the population.
Running the story under the subheading “Lambs of slaughter,” the 62-year-old Kenyan newspaper known to have the highest circulation in Kenya criticized Kenyans who went for public worship as having thrown “caution and common sense to the wind” and “repeating the deadly mistakes of some of the countries that are now burying their dead by the truckloads.”
Kenya’s oldest newspaper, The Standard, carried the headline “Agents of death,” and devoted the first nine pages of its March 23 edition to the narrative of “reckless actions.”
“Yesterday, defiant churches opened doors for Sunday services, oblivious of the risks to their members,” the 118-year-old newspaper published on its front page and added, “It is such reckless actions that authorities blame for the spread of the deadly virus.”
Reacting to these negative frames of the Church in Kenya, Archbishop Martin Kivuva of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa said it was not fair for the media to portray the church as a contributor to the spread of COVID-19 when the same church has, over the years, played a very critical role in healthcare provision.
“We were part of the consultative team that reached the decision,” Archbishop Kivuva responding to accusations that Catholic Bishops defied the government’s declaration against public gatherings adding that the ban on public gathering needed “to be repackaged in a manner that will be clearly understood by the faithful.”
The leaders of various lay movements in Kenya have, in a collective message, termed the negative media framing of the Church as narrow, episodic, and done in disregard to the activities of the Church and their impact among Kenyans.
“Contrary to the media coverage, the Catholic Church has been a strong link; an agent of life and a partner in the face of this epidemic, and other major catastrophes in the nation and in the world,” the leaders of four Catholic lay groups have stated in their Tuesday, March 24 statement addressed to MCK.
“The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of promoting a culture of life from conception to natural death,” the leaders of the various Catholic lay associations state in their message and recall how many followers of Christ in the country “including Priests, the Religious Men and Women and the Lay Faithful - have in the face of this and other calamities put their lives on the line to save lives.”
In Kenya, the leaders who represent the Kenya Catholic Men Association (CMAK), the Kenya Catholic Women Association (CWA), the Kenya Catholic Young Adults Association (CYA), and the Kenya Catholic Youth Association give the example of Blessed Sr. Irene Stephanie, the Consolata nun who was given the name “Nyaatha” that means “merciful mother” because of her unsparing service as an “angel of charity” among the people of God in Central Kenya.
The representatives of the lay faithful in Kenya also give the example of Fr. John Anthony Kaiser, the Mill Hill missionary who was reportedly assassinated in August 2000, “a man much loved by the people of Kenya for the work he did on behalf of the poor and dispossessed.”
In faulting the media for framing the Catholic Church as “an agent of death,” the Catholic lay leaders further give the example the 72-year-old Italian cleric, Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli “who gave up his respirator which was purchased for him by his own parishioners, to a younger patient suffering from the same Coronavirus: and paid the ultimate price.”
In their collective letter copied to media houses in Kenya and to KCCB, the Catholic lay leaders term the March 23 newspaper framing of the Church as unethical.
“Misleading reporting by such mainstream media is in no way helpful to the current predicament,” the leaders state and add, “To the contrary, they are unethical, insensitive and creating unnecessary tension. This is contra media ethics.”
They also fault the Kenyan mainstream media for exposing to stigma a couple of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 including a priest.
“It is unfortunate for the media to mention by name, those who have tested positive to the virus,” the lay leaders decry and probe why the mainstream media “found it opportune to pick and expose only the Catholic Priest and the Kilifi Deputy Governor.”
Signed by the Lay Apostolate Coordinator in Kenya’s diocese of Nakuru, Ronald Sunros Sunguti, the Catholic lay leaders demand that the media entities implicated in the recent negative framing of the Church “apologize to the Catholic Church and the general public and withdraw the sentiments.”
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa