Letter from New Delhi — A Century of Indian Journalism Saga in Kenya

Kenya Indian journalists founded newspapers and magazines to demand human rights and freedom under colonial rule in the first half of the last century; and during the latter half showed professionalism and ingenuity to reach top positions.

Despite facing threats, prison, exile and deportation, they contributed to developing Kenya’s media in no small measure.

An Indian merchant, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, set up a newspaper, The African Standard, in Mombasa in 1901 to counter Anti-Asian racism by the existing British owned newspapers, East Africa and Uganda Mail. Within three years, the British owned paper went bankrupt. A year later, Jeevanjee sold it to two Englishmen who renamed it as East African Standard which is still in print.

Later on, other South Asians founded newspapers in Nairobi to fight for equal rights, self-government and freedom. Colonial Times and Daily Chronicle were the early ones. Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi, editor of the Colonial Times, was the first journalist to be jailed for sedition in Kenya. Two others followed suit.

The colonial government charged the editor or journalist and fined the publisher or printer with sedition to intimidate and close down the offending paper. The journalists suffered rigorous imprisonment, exile and deportation and a well-known freedom fighter and editor Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated. But they persisted in their fight for equality and human rights.

During the first half of the last century, Kenya’s South Asian journalists suffered under the British colonial rule but contributed to the independence struggle by publishing newspapers and magazines. After independence in 1963, the Indian owned newspapers and magazines went out of print.

With the launch of a major newspapers group, The Nation in 1960, the South Asian journalists made their mark in news reporting and newspaper production. Mostly starting as trainees, they rose to become editors in almost all departments; and the most outstanding of them, Joe Rodrigues, became the editor in chief. During this time, another Sunday paper, Sunday Post, was also bought by South Asians.

More than 20 South Asian journalists worked for The Nation to make a major contribution enabling The Nation to overtake its rival, East African Standard, in circulation by 1969, in nine years. The South Asians outclassed the long established rival in hard news, sports news, business news, and cultural news with action photos. By 1975, most of them left Kenya and flourished in their new locations to enjoy their golden years.

All this is presented in a magnificent new coffee table book, ‘The In-Between World of Kenya’s Media: South Asian Journalism, 1900 – 1992’ by Zarina Patel (Zand Graphics) released on 19 April 2016 in Nairobi. The pre-independence era is mostly presented from archives while the stories of the freedom era journalists are mostly told by themselves or their relatives. Interestingly, the author Zarina Patel is the granddaughter of A. M. Jeevanjee, the founder of the first Asian newspaper. The author of a number of biographies of South Asians and a human rights activist, Zarina Patel took five years to collect personal stories of nine print journalists in the Kenya’s colonial era; and another 28 print journalists; 18 photographers; ten radio journalists in the independence era.

“There is a bullet with your husband’s name on it; get him out of Kenya as soon as possible,” the wife of a Kenya Indian editor, Cyprian Fernandes, was warned at work. At the peak of his career as Foreign Editor of the Nation, he left Kenya within a month. A socialist journalist who had gone to jail fighting for Kenya’s freedom, Pio Gama Pinto, was assassinated in broad daylight as was leaving for office.

Another, Pranlal Sheth, was deported while two, Karim Hudani and Chander Mehra, exiled themselves. Most shocking of all, Joe Rodrigues, editor in chief of the Nation newspaper group, was summarily sacked after 21 years of sterling service. Other Kenya South Asian journalists were regularly picked up for questioning by ‘the special branch’ of the police.

Over 45 years after GL Vidyarthi was imprisoned, his son, Anil, became the last Kenyan journalist to be charged with sedition to date. In 1998, Anil was acquitted after the sedition law was repealed from the Constitution.

Among the print journalists in free Kenya, Joe Rodrigues stands out as he joined The Nation as a Sub Editor and rose to become the editor in chief purely on his professional capability and hard work. At the global level, he was elected the president of the International Press Institute. Another sub editor, Alfred Araujo became editor of the Sunday Nation, Cyprian Fernandes rose to the post of foreign editor, Kul Bhushan was appointed as the first business editor, Rashid Mughal became features editor after joining as a proof reader, Norman da Costa as sports editor, while Sultan Jessa and Sham Lal Puri made sterling contributions. This list is almost endless.

Press photographers and radio journalists have also been included as they played a major role during this century. Three South Asian photographers, Mohamed Amin, Priya Ramrakha and Sir Mohinder Dhillon, made their mark on the global scene with their photo-coverage of Eastern Africa during this time. Priya Ramrakha and Mohamed Amin died in the call of duty; Sir Mohinder Dhillon decided to walk away from a torture scene deliberately extended for filming; 21-year old Mohinder Singh Marjara disappeared in the Congo and no search was ever mounted for him. These and many other cameramen have their tales and top photos here.

The airwaves were dominated by Chaman Lal Chaman, Pritam Chaggar, Mussa Ayub, Sajjad and Darshi Shamshi, and others. The first Asian women print and radio journalists, Gaytri Sagar and Tochi Chaggar respectively, are included with due diligence. Why does the book stop at 1992? Because then the airwaves were liberalized and most of the earlier journalists had emigrated.

Journalists are normally writing or telling other people’s stories, here they are writing their own. In cases where the journalist was no more, relatives or colleagues stepped in. Leafing through the book, an African journalist has commented: “I had no idea these guys existed. This book has secured their place in Kenyan history for posterity.” To label it as a magnum opus of Asian journalists’ saga in Kenya is an understatement.

Kul Bhushan worked as a full time journalist and editor in Kenya for 40 years during this period and is included in this book

* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016

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