Kenya's 2007/8 post-election violence still haunts journalists, study says

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenyan journalists who reported on their country’s worst outbreak of inter-ethnic violence, which killed more than 1,000 people following a disputed 2007 election, remain traumatized, researchers said on Friday.

Policemen and civilians take cover around ballot boxes as police used tear gas and shoot with live ammunition during a protest after vote counting was discontinued over poll violence in Kajiado North constituency, near Nairobi December 28, 2007. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The Royal Society of Medicine said it was the first major study of the emotional well-being of journalists covering violent events in Africa, although half of the continent’s countries are either at war or have recently experienced it.

“Post election violence was experienced firsthand as neighbor turned on neighbor, communities were destroyed and the media in some cases became the focus of mob rage,” said the study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open.

“The deeply traumatic nature of this exposure to violence is highlighted by the fact that seven years on from the rioting and mayhem, prominent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety remain.”

The study, based on questionnaires completed by 57 journalists at two major Kenyan news organizations, found that reporters who covered Kenya’s 2007/8 post-election violence had moderate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly those who had been wounded on the job.

Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares or unwanted intrusive recollections, coupled with difficulties concentrating, hypervigilance, insomnia and irritability.

Only seven out of 23 journalists caught up in the post-election violence received counseling, the study found, calling on Kenyan and African news organizations to routinely offer counseling to such staff.

“The outcome may have been very different had more journalists received help,” it said.

Only 23 percent of respondents had been offered counseling while 19 percent had been injured at work.

The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in journalists who have worked for over a decade in conflict zones approaches that of combat veterans, earlier studies by lead researcher, Anthony Feinstein, Professor of Psychiatry at Canada’s University of Toronto, have shown.

This is more than five times higher than among the general population.

In contrast to the trauma caused by post-election violence, journalists were largely unaffected by the 2013 attack on Westgate Mall by al Shabaab militants.

“The primary reason for this is likely to have been their proximity to danger,” the study said.

“The Westgate attack, whilst highly lethal, given the 67 fatalities, largely unfolded behind barriers erected by the police and army.”