Joseph Gathecha has always been a storyteller, even from his schooldays regaling his classmates with tall tales and imitating the news presenters on the radio. One of his early memories is of his mother predicting that one day he would fulfill a childhood dream to be a journalist.
“Being a journalist was a calling,” he says.
Growing up in Kibera, a sprawling ghetto of Nairobi, Kenya, imbued Gathecha with a mission and a passion: to give the world a fuller picture of a place most people know only as an infamous slum – if they know it at all – bedeviled by filth and disease.
“Kibera has been misrepresented by the local and international media houses for decades,” he says. “Therefore one major reason why I became a journalist … was to try and fight the fake and negative news and stories that emerged about Kibera, by telling and showing the real and actual situation of Kibera through balancing both the negatives and the positives.”
The neighborhood has produced great athletes, artists, and musicians, and has a well-regarded primary school and a relatively low crime rate, Gathecha says. And not everyone there is poor.
Battling stereotypes is seldom easy, but Gathecha’s task is made more difficult by a media environment that he says neither encourages talent nor rewards hard work. Payment to journalists can be spotty, recognition is rare, and proper equipment is scarce. A good idea is likely to be stolen by a competitor if a journalist is not careful, and some media organizations pay sources for information. Journalists without press cards are sometimes harassed by authorities, and even a press card does not guarantee access to information or coverage, especially of presidential events.
Further, journalists can face intimidation or even violence in the course of their work, and Kenyan society has been riven by a bitter contest over who will become its next president since general elections were held in August. Last year, reporters were attacked while covering opposition protests, and one journalist was killed after attackers raided his home and allegedly demanded he delete the photos from his camera.
Gathecha says he has twice had run-ins with the police: he was arrested while covering the police capture of a theft suspect who had escaped a lynch mob – a bribe from his boss and deleting the photos were the price of freedom – and his camera was confiscated while he was covering the ambush and shooting death by police of a robbery suspect. He says friends and colleagues have faced similar harassment.
Police heavy-handedness and lingering tensions over the elections – which were invalidated and re-run in response to fraud accusations by the opposition – put extra pressure on journalists who seek to remain independent.
Among the work Gathecha is most proud of is an investigation of a renewal project for Kibera in which residents hoped for new homes, only to see some of them go to well-connected people who did not live in the neighborhood. The story brought the issue to light and resulted in a televised debate, though little was done about it, Gathecha says.