Newsrooms have always had war correspondents. Many are mad, fearless, restless adrenaline junkies. Their idea of a good time is sitting on ammunition boxes on an old military cargo plane and landing at a Congolese airstrip under enemy fire or drinking a warlord under the table while trying to remember the quotes for a story.
These days, however, almost everyone is a war correspondent. One morning during the campaigns for the just-ended General Election, we held a virtual crisis meeting with some of the editors and the reporters at the frontline. Campaigns tend to be chaotic and frenetic but this one had degenerated into war, and one in which journalists were being targeted.
One had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet. One had almost been run over by a security vehicle. A police officer had targeted one of our reporters and told him he was merely collateral damage. Another one of our reporters had been forced to destroy his own mobile phone by crashing it into the ground, before being briefly detained.
Every morning, we were sending out young men and women to find and report stories without being sure they would come back alive. We had invested in flak jackets and helmets as if we were sending them out to war. We were having to do roll-calls and random check-ins to be sure everyone was accounted for. The editors had gone from chasing reporters for stories to just checking that they were alive.
By the time of our crisis meeting, the editors had had enough. No story was worth a journalist’s life and if anyone on the frontline felt they wanted to come home, they were free to do so, we said. There was a bit of silence, then one of the guys spoke: If we could just get a few gas masks to deal with the teargas, he would be fine to carry on. “If we aren’t there to tell the story, no one else will,” another chimed in. And so on. In a few minutes, it was clear no one was coming home prematurely. Everyone would soldier on.
Few of these journos are household names, and apart from those who appear on television, many would not be recognised on the street. Journalism is a funny old business; behind the glamour of a news anchor or a printed news story lies many hands, from cameramen to drivers to sub-editors to printing press operators et cetera. Many of these are unsung heroes.
This week, we bade farewell to one of those invisible yet very capable hands. Although she has been in the trade for almost two decades, edited the paper for close to five years and had her name on the masthead, few people would recognise Margaret Vuchiri in the street. Which is how she would want it to be.
For many years, Margaret edited the op-ed section, including this column, which meant that her Wednesday afternoons were spent refreshing her email to see if your columnist had finally delivered his perennially late column. Not once did she complain, although I suspect that she contemplated my murder a few times.
As someone who worked my way from the bottom to the masthead, it has been gratifying to see Margaret march upwards with steely determination and quiet competence. As editor, she had none of my drama or theatrics, but was instead a calming influence and anchor in the newsroom, while being sufficiently big-headed to push back against bean counters, busy bodies and influence peddlers.
While she has left to pursue other interests, I suspect that Maggie, as everyone called her in the newsroom, will be back. While she loves decorating and cooking, her hands were made for typing!
We don’t give enough credit to the foot soldiers in the journalism industry. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck and everyone scampered to safety, journalists went in the opposite direction trying to keep the information flow alive even when there was little to write home about.
Our journalism is far from perfect, but history would be poorer without that rough first draft. We are indebted to Margaret for stewarding the team through turbulent seas, and to the other unsung heroes in our newsrooms, and elsewhere, on whose shoulders the media industry really rests. We never say thank you enough.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.