Reporter’s Notebook: advice on how not to cover a terrorist attack – Westgate

Conflict In Context - Field Notes
Kenya police chiefs lunching at a hotel near Westgate Mall.

1. If you want to inspect a scene in the minutes, hours or days following a major crisis – especially one involving national security – never, ever tell members of the government or armed forces you’re a journalist, even or especially if you’re staffer or freelancer with a major media outlet.

Lie, lie, lie.

That’s what governments shamelessly do when covering up.

I was away from Nairobi the weekend of the Westgate attack and couldn’t get a seat on a flight back to Nairobi until Monday. I was able to file a story for Daily Beast from where I was. By the time I got to Nairobi on Monday the corrugated iron gates hadn’t gone up yet, but the GSU police – the same special police forces that allegedly killed masses of protestors after the disputed outcome of the 2007 presidential election – were legion.

I was lucky to discover the Ukay Nakumatt parking lot was empty of cars, but, surprisingly, most of the stores, including the original Nakumatt supermarket, were open. An elderly British lady shopped inside, checking fruit for its ripeness, as if a terrorist attack killing 67 and injuring 175 less than 100 meters away a week previously had never happened.

In any case, I seemed to have discovered this perfect open perch before the other journos and connected with a few owners of shops and cars on their way inside to inspect the damage. They were more than happy to let me go inside the mall with them. However, I made the grave mistake of handing my correspondence card to the red-capped GSU officer standing guard in front of the corrugated metal gate in the Nakumatt Ukay parking lot.

Tuesday, October 4th, when Ministers and other government heavies visited Nairobi’s new ground zero, a few of us wazungu reporters tried slipping in through the gates. GSU don’t seem to discriminate between sexes when it came to shoving reporters back outside. For three days I stood outside those metal gates hoping against hope I’d get in.

On the fourth day, a local television reporter and I decided we’d try to get in by way of disguise. We decided I’d be a furniture shop owner and he would be “Bob”, my insurance assessor. I tucked my hair under my hat and put on some shades. Okay, it was a lame attempt at a disguise, but it was pretty much all I had at hand. Unfortunately, just as we walked up to the gate, the shift had changed and my usual stern-looking officer with high-cheek bones and sunken eyes was back. Bob and I figured we’d give it a shot anyway. But in less than five seconds, the officer said, you’re Margot with ______media and you (pointing to Bob) are with KTN.

“He’s only trying to wear us down,” said Bob trying to convince me we should stick around under the striking Equatorial midday sun anyway. “If we wait another six hours, we will wear him down. He’ll let us in, I just know it….”.

The GSU told me I was a very persistent reporter, he had to give me that, he said without cracking a grin. It was a compliment. I think.

With so many lies and much speculation flying around like shrapnel, Bob pointed out, “At the end of this day all we know for sure or can believe… is that Westgate was attacked.”

And the experience of witnesses.

2. If you’re a keen and competent journalist blogging about acts of terror between assignments, never, ever, ever blog the names of sources you may want to use when, say, Al Jazeera and Newsweek assign you features. You may find that larger, more established media outlets will have already scooped your sources. That’s what likely happened after I met Fazal Virani, owner of Sir Henry’s, a men’s tailor shop on the mall’s ground floor, and blogged about it the next day, September, 29th.

Until the blog content is recognized as legitimate news source be aware of what you share.

Original reporting in Nairobi is highly sought after by all media outlets, since, mercifully, terror attacks like the ’98 embassy bombings, 9/11 and Westgate don’t come around that often.



At the Nakumatt Ukay  (next to Westgate Mall)
At the Nakumatt Ukay (next to Westgate Mall)
2013-09-25 13.18.24
City mortuary

1 thought on “Reporter’s Notebook: advice on how not to cover a terrorist attack – Westgate

Leave a Reply