On May 21, NTV 9pm news bulletin ran a story headlined Positive after Prayers, which reported that Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus Is Alive Ministries (JIAM) had been diagnosed with Covid-19 along with eight others said to have been at her home for a prayer meeting.
However, when she was discharged from the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi on May 30, Bishop Wanjiru denied having hosted a prayer meeting in her house. She clarified that the other people who tested positive for coronavirus were her staff.
The NTV story offended many Christians who accused the station of being biased against church leaders and dismissive of the power of prayer.
Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), stated in a Facebook post that the headline was disdainful, unprofessional, a mockery and a scornful attack on a church leader and the power of prayer. He also said the timing and context were insensitive towards a person fighting for her life in hospital.
“It was callous in the extreme. Whoever wrote that was trying to express his or her disdain and cynicism under the guise of creative expression, something they would not do for their bosses or relatives,” wrote Mr Mutua, who between 2001 and 2007 was the Kenya Union of Journalists secretary general.
He said the broadcast did not use plain language but instead twisted the news, and reminded the station that journalistic ethics dictate the reporting of facts devoid of sarcasm and mockery.
The story came hot on the heels of other media reports viewed as anti-Church in a span of less than two months. On March 23, two leading Kenyan newspapers devoted a lot of space to headlines and stories that painted the Church in a negative light with regard to the war against the coronavirus pandemic.
The Daily Nation carried a headline, Church, the Weak Link, with a subheading saying “Lambs of slaughter” and devoted the first six pages to the article. On the front page was a photo of Legio Maria adherents at a prayer meeting.
Kenya’s oldest newspaper, The Standard, carried the headline, Agents of Death, which covered nine pages and made reference to the “reckless actions by Kilifi Deputy Governor Gideon Saburi and the Church”.
“Yesterday, defiant churches opened doors for Sunday services, oblivious to the risks… It is such reckless actions that authorities blame for the spread of the deadly virus,” the story read.
The dailies were reacting to churches that had chosen to open their doors for regular services in disregard to the government’s warning against public gatherings. But there were those who saw the articles as an affront to their faith.
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 critical role in healthcare provision.
In a collective message, Catholic leaders of lay groups termed the negative portrayal of the Church narrow, episodic and dismissive of the Church’s activities and impact among Kenyans.
Separately, Rev Harrison Macharia, the Executive Director of iServe Africa, singled out the Daily Nation article as victimisation. He said targeting the Church and labelling it the weak link in the fight against the pandemic was unfair considering that people from areas with high infection rates were moving about freely, and markets and public transport vehicles were still operating.
This is not the first time the media has been accused of unfair reporting about the Church or gospel ministers. In the run-up to the August 2010 referendum on the new constitution, church leaders from different denominations under the Kenya Christian Constitutional Forum (KCCF) banner called a meeting in Nairobi to discuss whether Christians should boycott mainstream media platforms owing to what they called “persistent media blackout” on Church matters by the major players during campaigns for the referendum.
At one KCCF press conference, a journalist asked Bishop Wanjiru why Christians had singled out kadhi courts as a contentious issue when the courts had been part of the Constitution since Kenya’s independence.
Wanjiru responded that the journalist would not understand the Church’s stand because this was a spiritual matter, to which the reporter retorted: “Then why did you call us if you knew we would not understand you? We thought you wanted to provide us with hard facts on why you are opposed to the courts!”
This uneasy relationship between the Church and the press is not confined to Kenya. Ten years ago, according to The Guardian, the Church of England called for a Church and media consultative forum in London to improve relations. A key issue for the Church was that news coverage was dominated by the disputes arising from the ordination of women bishops and gay clergymen. In response, a leading religious affairs journalist said that was what people wanted to read about, and that half the population was female after all.
Graham James, the now-retired bishop of Norwich, pointed out that there had been little study on how much the Church had adapted to the challenges of the mass media – such as holding more public televised events in cathedrals and churches, and supplying community representatives in times of tragedy.
In Kenya, Bishop Steve Mutua experienced first-hand how the press reports on Church matters when he worked as the international director of Christ for all Nations (CfaN) between January 1987 and September 2007. The ministry was founded by the late Reinhard Bonnke, the German evangelist whose gospel crusades became known for healing miracles. However, mainstream media channels frequently questioned the veracity of these miracles.
“In the beginning, after every healing miracle, I would collect the details to satisfy media curiosity but these were never published,” says Mutua, the presiding bishop of Eagles Christian Church.
One instance was when a 44-year-old man who was said to be deaf and dumb was healed after being prayed for during a crusade meeting.
“The man was well known in Nakuru Town and we produced a comprehensive documentary to prove the veracity of the miracle. We interviewed those who knew him, including his parents, and took him to Nakuru Provincial General Hospital (now Nakuru Level 6 Hospital) for testing to ascertain that he had indeed been cured,” he says. “We sent the video tapes to media houses and waited. Sadly, they were never aired on TV or published in the newspapers even after follow-ups.”
He recalls that the media questioned why Bonnke concentrated his preaching efforts in Kenya when there were so many other African countries experiencing more suffering.
“I realised then that some of the criticism was meant to deter us from our divine assignment,” he says.
On the alleged prayer meeting at Bishop Wanjiru’s house, he believes the media might have assumed that the people present had gathered to pray against the pandemic and so when some tested positive for the virus, it pointed to the uselessness of their prayers.
“Journalists often hear Christians say there is power in prayer. But most are ‘doubting Thomases’ and don’t believe until they see; some continue to doubt even after seeing,” he says.
Media Council of Kenya (MCK) CEO David Omwoyo says the differences that exist between the Church and the press have to do with the foundations and principles the two institutions uphold.
“For example, the Church’s very nature is founded on the principle of total belief without question while the media goes by ‘don’t believe anything, question everything’. This is why some Christians think of us as being too inquisitive and biased,” he says.
The council has received several complaints from church leaders and organisations that Mr Omwoyo says have all been resolved amicably.
“Sometimes we receive up to 20 complaints in a month from mainstream and evangelical churches concerning stories that have been published or aired. The complaints have to do with unfair or inaccurate reporting,” he says.
Once the grievances are received, they are immediately forwarded to the media house responsible for response after which MCK reviews the concerns raised and the responses.
“If the concern is valid, MCK will direct that an apology is made in a format that satisfies the aggrieved party,” he says.
Omwoyo is willing to extend an olive branch to church leaders and says the council is ready to engage them more constructively.
“What churches should remember is that the media will always demand accountability from anyone of high regard or any Church matter of public interest,” he says.
That would perhaps explain why veteran media practitioner Joseph Odindo, in a reply to the KFCB boss’ Facebook post, demanded accountability from Bishop Wanjiru. Mr Odindo, who has worked as editorial director at both Standard Group and Nation Media Group, said the bishop had acted insensitively by disregarding government measures and basic rules of health.
Now a communication consultant and media trainer, Odindo said Wanjiru’s conduct deserved to be spotlighted and discussed by the public.
“That discussion can be framed in sensitive or insensitive terms, depending on whether or not one disapproves of her conduct. For leaders, choices always have consequences,” he wrote on Facebook.
But former Deliverance Church head Bishop William Tuimising says mainstream media thrive on selling “bad” news.
“If, for instance, 2,000 people get saved during a gospel crusade, they (media) cannot put that as a headline. But if one person gets injured or dies at that crusade, journalists will rush to report it,” he says, adding that society has an appetite for “negative” stories.
Tuimising has been doing pastoral work for about five decades and headed the Deliverance Churches for 22 years before stepping down for Bishop Mark Kariuki. He says he doesn’t mind constructive criticism – it is what has helped him last so long in ministry.
“For instance, the government banned gatherings of more than 15 people to stop the spread of Covid-19. If I were to organise a meeting of 100 people in church and I am reprimanded for it, I shouldn’t take that negatively,” he says.
Bishop Mutua also agrees that everyone needs constructive criticism but says the key is to know where it is coming from and what to pick from it.
With all the differing voices weighing in on the matter, it may be a while before relations improve. But for now, perhaps Christians should rethink their suspicions that the press is an enemy of the cross and instead work on figuring out how best the two institutions can work together for the wellbeing of society.