Kenyan newspaper readers might be intimately familiar with the name Macharia Gaitho. For years, he has been editing and contributing to one of the country’s leading newspapers, with his provocative style earning him friends and foes alike. In August last year, the veteran journalist opted for early retirement after years with the Nation Media Group to go into independent journalism. ESTHER KIRAGU caught up with him to recapture his days in media and find out what he has been up to since leaving Nation.
Many describe his articles in the Daily Nation as hard-hitting, bold and maybe even a little too harsh. But with Gaitho, it is difficult to have a middle ground; you either love him or love to hate him! He speaks his mind notwithstanding whom it may offend. And it is perhaps this kind of audacity that got him into the media in the first place.
He admits that he always had a passion for writing but never really got to do it until 1986 after learning of an opening for a sub-editor at The Weekly Review, then Kenya’s premier weekly news magazine noted for ground-breaking political analysis and commentary. An unconventional kind of man, Gaitho’s job application included that week’s copy of the magazine, which he had thoroughly deconstructed with a red pen.
His letter noted that since he’d had so much fun over the years trying to make sense of badly subbed copy, he might as well get paid to clean it up for other readers. He was called in almost immediately, and asked if he’d like to try out his hand as a reporter since the sub’s job was already taken. He jumped at the chance.
“I took up writing expecting it to be a side hustle because I planned to do graphic design full time, but the journalism bug bit and I have never looked back,” says the 56-year-old.
Gaitho, who describes himself as an ‘untrained journalist’ boasts of an illustrious career in media despite having never been to a journalism class. He explains, “I studied Design at the University of Nairobi, and after graduation worked for some time with a graphic design firm in Nairobi. Later, I joined the Ministry of Labour’s Kenya Textile Training Institute as an instructor, before I ditched it for journalism at the Weekly Review.”
At the height of political agitation…
“Those of us who got into the media in the 80s were considered foolish, as the market was limited, the job not well paying and to cap it all, it was a high-risk career. However, I stuck because I had a passion for it,” he says.
Those being the years of single party political system in Kenya, journalism had a role to play in the fight for democracy. He joined the media at an exciting time when the country was riveted by the ‘Queuing debate’. President Daniel arap Moi’s KANU, then the sole legal political party, had devised an electoral system by which instead of the secret ballot, voters lined up behind their candidate of choice at the party nominations.
“Election winners were determined by the queuing system which set the stage for massive rigging. But it also allowed people, for the first time to see the extent of rigging when those with shorter queues were declared the winners. That set the stage for the political agitation resulting a few years later in campaign for multi-party democracy”. It was a turbulent period when police torture and detention without trial was the order of the day. The mainstream newspapers were very conservative in their reporting and afraid to buck the system, but The Weekly Review, among other brave small publications such as Society Magazine, Finance Magazine, and Financial Review came out boldly in reporting and supporting the crusade for change, which eventually forced KANU to give way.
Gaitho’s career at The Weekly Review lasted for five years, leaving as deputy managing Editor in 1993 to join a new outfit, The Economic Review, as managing editor in charge of politics. “At the time, independent local publications faced stiff competition from the established publications in terms of advertising revenue. Most advertising companies were foreign owned and very conservative in outlook, favouring only the established, compliant media. They also avoided like the plague publications that that were likely to stir the government’s wrath with provocative political reports. Due to lack of advertising revenue, many publications went under,” he explains the fate that befell The Economic Review which folded in 1998, and The Weekly Review soon after.
After two-years with another independent start-up, monthly magazine the Analyst, Gaitho got into mainstream media when he joined the Nation Group in 2000 as special projects editor for the Daily Nation. He rose through the ranks and capped off his career as managing editor for special projects, until he voluntarily decided to call it a day last August after 16 years.
He admits rubbing some politicians up the wrong way considering he was a political analyst. The nature of his job also came with risks and misconceptions about his personal political stand but he learnt to remain an unbiased political journalist.
Some of Gaitho’s happiest moments in media include when, before the onset of opinion polling, he and The Weekly Review team correctly predicted the 1992 election outcomes at the onset of multi-party system in Kenya.
The end of Kanu’s four-decade stranglehold on power in 2002 and enactment of the new constitution in 2010 are other seminal moments he recalls.
“My worst moments remain the days when media was a target by the government such as during the time of the pro-democracy Saba Saba rallies, the murder of Robert Ouko in 1990, and as well the period when journalists were closely monitored, phones tapped, and people couldn’t talk politics openly, often being sent to jail on trumped-up charges”.
Lessons learnt from decades in media…
Today, Gaitho appreciates the growth of media in the country with a variety of TV and radio stations and also new information space created by mushrooming online and social media platforms. His advice to journalists is that they cannot afford to be left behind and must keep up with evolving trends or risk redundancy. Although many media houses haven’t figured out how to make money from online platforms, he advises against ignoring new media.
On media freedom he says: “I have been at the centre of advocating for media freedom in Kenya and the changes so far are unbelievable. During my days as chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, I played a role in promoting media ethics and upholding professionalism in the industry. I appreciate that media freedom in Kenya is way ahead of many other countries especially in Africa, so much so that that at times it may seem like the media have more freedom than they know what to do with it. However, there are more strides to be made as we are not yet there.”
Gaitho opines that as much as advertising is the bread and butter of media, there must be a clear divide so that the commercial arm does not interfere with the editorial content. He urges media houses to invest in robust internal editorial policies as these often come in handy in case of a tussle between editorial and advertising. “If you dilute your editorial and readers no longer buy your publication as it no longer appeals to them, then definitely the same advertisers pushing you to the wall will pull out, thus you need to stick to your principles,” he cautions the media.
He is particularly concerned by the recent trend where established media houses have been seen to sack editors and reporters merely to placate the government or major advertisers. He wishes the media could invest in its reporters and correspondents better, even in these days of massive media layoffs.
Does he have any regrets? “Not really. Of course there have been times when I wonder if my opinion pieces were too harsh, but then again that’s just me; I don’t mince my words,” he says.
In a classic example of old habits dying hard, Gaitho retains his hard-hitting weekly column in the Daily Nation, to which he also contributes occasional political analysis and special reports. He is also at liberty to write for other publications and is currently pursuing different writing avenues locally and across the continent.
As we end the interview, Gaitho reiterates that journalism is a labour of love and his advice to upcoming journalists and those still in the industry is to strive to be the best version of themselves.