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Tribute to South Asian journalists

By Jennifer Muchiri | May 2nd 2016
Zarina Patel

The role of the members of the Fourth Estate in any society cannot be gainsaid.

These men and women serve as the pulse and voice of the people and a responsible press ensures the sanity of a society and protects the masses from exploitation and abuse by rogue leaders by keeping governments in check.

Kenya is a multi-coloured and multilingual society and therefore her journalists represent the multiplicity of peoples in this country.

It is in light of this multiplicity of hues and shades of Kenyans that Zarina Patel has released a new book, The In-between World of Kenya’s Media (Zand Graphics, 2016) which tells the story of South Asian journalists in Kenya between 1900 and 1992.

The In-between World of Kenya’s Media is a kind of biography which pays tribute to Kenyan journalists of South Asian descent. The book documents the contribution of these journalists in the development of Kenya since colonialism.

Biography is a strategy of giving voice or agency to the voiceless; of celebrating the uncelebrated; of correcting history by bridging gaps in information. To this end, Zarina chooses to look at this group’s contribution by taking journalists and journalism as her point of departure.

She records the personal narratives of South Asian journalists — print, photo, and broadcasting — which are an apt reflection of the narrative of colonial Kenya to an independent nation.

The earliest newspaper in Kenya, African Standard, the predecessor of today’s The Standard, was founded by a South Asian, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, in 1901.

The narratives in the book reveal that journalists of South Asian origin were actively involved in the anti-colonial movement in Kenya and in the making of the new nation after independence.

However, after independence, their influence declined since many of them emigrated for various reasons, were deported or silenced. The South Asian community in Kenya was economically strong but, being a minority, they lacked political influence.

Over the years, therefore, racism and manipulative ethnic divides threatened the journalists’ survival and many left the country.

The 1972 expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Amin and Kenya’s approval of the action contributed to South Asians’ fears. The attempted coup in 1982 made many Asians targets of the vandals and this also contributed to the decline of the journalists, especially those who were employed by Kenyan newspapers, and many were forced into exile.

Highlighting the tribulations of these journalists, Zarina cites the examples of Joe Rodrigues, a journalist of repute who was an editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper but was fired callously; Salim Lone who was forced out of Kenya several times; Pranlal Sheth who was accused of being too close to Jaramogi Odinga; Cyprian Fernandes who was accused of “knowing too much;” and Karim Hudani who criticised the Africanisation programme.

In addition to those forced into exile, Pio Gama Pinto, a fierce government critic, was assassinated and the government totally ignored the disappearance of Mohinder Singh and his driver in the Congo.

Chandu Vasani was forced to leave his job after he refused to sensationanalise the Asian exodus while Anil Vidyarthi was jailed for publishing articles critical of the Moi regime.

Although the field of South Asian journalism is Kenya is dominated by males, Zarina records the narratives of some of the women who contributed to this important sector of Kenya’s growth.

Colonial Injustices

She tells the stories of Gaytri Syal Sagar, the first South Asian female journalist in Kenya; Lorraine Saldanha and Olinda Fatima Fernandes who worked with the Nation between 1966 and 1974. Their stories show the difficulties women faced in this career in the early years after independence.

Zarina records the existence of newspapers founded by South Asians before independence and how they paved the way for present-day journalism. Besides Jeevanjee’s African Standard, there existed, among others, The Indian Voice founded by D K Bhutt (1911-1913), Manilal Desai’s East African Chronicle (1920-1922), Sitaram Achariar’s The Democrat (1920-1930) and Saifuddin Patwa’s Citizen (1951-1956).

These newspapers were very vocal in their castigation of colonial injustices and in highlighting the grievances of Indians and Africans about land, labour and wages.

With the heightened struggle for independence in the 50s, the colonial authorities were constantly harassing journalists and cracking down on newspapers.

While some of the pre-1950 publications closed down, others were set up and took up the call for independence with renewed gusto.

Zarina records the contribution of papers such as the Tribune, the National Guardian and the Nyanza Advertiser to this period in Kenya’s history and also recognises the presence of newspapers in Tanzania which worked in solidarity with those in Kenya.

She notes, sadly, that in that period, South Asians in Uganda did not have their own newspaper and did not have any recognisable impact on the development of African press.

South Asian journalists in Kenya were present to usher in the new nation at independence but although they expanded the journalistic space later, the post-independence governments were not very media-friendly.

As a result, many of the journalists left the country or quit their jobs. However, as Zarina’s book shows, these journalists’ work left an indelible mark in the media industry.

Their narratives show the struggle for media freedom which was often infringed upon by the post-independence regimes, and highlight the journalists’ resilience in the face of political harassment.

The writer not only reproduces some extracts from these journalists’ writings but also photos from the works of respected photojournalists such as Sir Mohinder Dhillon.

Zarina’s records of South Asian journalists are accompanied by the reflections of two veteran journalists, Hilary Ng’weno and Joe Kadhi, whose accounts of the growth of journalism in Kenya corroborate those of their South Asian colleagues.

Their experiences give credence to the narrative of victimisation of journalists but also pay tribute to the role of journalists in creating a positive impact on society.

The book carries articles by two contemporary journalists who offer a critical look at Kenyan journalism today. Tom Maliti’s First Things First is an exploration of media policy in Kenya while George Nyabuga’s Overview of the Media in Independent Kenya examines Kenya’s media after independence.

Both journalists decry the constant infringement of journalists’ freedoms but acquiesce that although the liberties have increased, the media still struggles to bring to light affairs that the government would rather keep away from the public.

This book reveals that although South Asians may occupy an “in-between” space in Kenya, journalists of this heritage have played a major role in the making of this nation.

Many of the older generation of these journalists may have left the country or stopped their trade but a few persisted such as Zoeb Tayabjee, Sir Mohinder Dhillon, Sayyid Azim and the late Mohammed Amin among others.

Since 1992, a breed of a younger generation of Kenyans of South Asian origin has emerged in journalism. Zain Verjee, Smirti Vidyarthi, Julie Gichuru, Anjlee Noorani, and the late Ruhila Adatia are some of them.

This is a generation that is not burdened by the baggage of colonialism and, Zarina hopes, it is in a position to usher in a new brand of South Asian journalism in the country.

In-between World of Kenya’s Media is a worthy contribution to Kenya’s archives as it documents not only Kenya’s media history but the history of a people and a nation as well.

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