The dire effects of Covid-19 on Kenya’s sports journalists

The dire effects of Covid-19 on Kenya’s sports journalists

SPECIAL REPORT      Isaac Swila

Under normal circumstances, Jacob Icia, Gilbert Kiprotich, Ernest Mkalla, Geoffrey Mwamburi, Godfrey Ashiali, Luqman Mahmoud et al., would be looking forward to a road trip this weekend; either to western Kenya or to the far-flung port city of Mombasa, located along Kenya’s coast line, some 488 kilometres south east of the capital Nairobi.

As sports journalists working in the Radio department of Kenya’s leading media house, Royal Media Services, they have become accustomed to travelling the length and breadth of Kenya – in line of duty – to cover the Kenyan Premier League matches through live football match commentaries or athletics races, basketball games or Kenya Cup matches.

The sextet is part of the 20-plus strong team of sports journalists working for the 13 radio stations under the RMS stable.

However, this weekend, like last month, they won’t make such a trip and definitely not next week, or next month or this calendar year. In fact they do not know when they’ll travel again, for such duties!

And for them and their colleagues, who are also sports commentators, writers, reporters, and anchors, what would ordinarily be a fun-filled weekend at the stadium terraces, interacting with fans, capturing the beautiful game in words and contextualizing the action on the pitch into the ear of the unseen radio listener, as the adrenaline runs through their veins striving to give the best commentary by use of carefully selected words to describe a goal, a foul or a red card, would now be most probably replaced with boredom and monotony – behind the confined four-walls of their living rooms – either reading a book,  filing content for the digital platform ( or catching up on the latest movie.

Such is the disruption and impact that the novel Coronavirus has brought to the lives of professional sports journalists in Kenya.

The virus which first broke out in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has since spread across the globe like wildfire with literally every country on the globe affected.

By Thursday, April 23 2020 there were 2,628,527 confirmed cases across the globe with 183,424 deaths and 784,986 recoveries.

In Kenya, the number of infected persons had soared to 303 with 14 deaths being recorded while recoveries stood at 83.

With the numbers steadily rising, many companies rolled out measures to prevent the spread of the flu-like virus from reaching their work places.

RMS was one of the first media companies in Kenya to embrace the work-from-home formula, choosing to have a skeleton staff at the company premises. This was to avoid overcrowding at the office hence lowering the risk of infection.

With sports adversely affected by the virus on a scale never witnessed before, the Olympics which was primed for July in Tokyo this year has been postponed to the summer of 2021 as well as other sports events – local and international. This saw sports content become a scarce commodity, meaning that the airtime accorded to sports bulletins on RMS radio stations was scrapped off with occasional weighty sports items making it to the main bulletin, while a number of sports shows, such as Sporty Monday on Citizen TV was rested.

As such, many of these sports journalists were either redeployed to Programming or News desks while others took the mandatory 30-days leave, as directed by the company.

In short, the lives of these journalists have been affected in a hitherto unheralded manner.

Icia, who apart from commentary duties reports and reads the sport bulletin on Radio Citizen, Kenya’s number one station, according to KARF report, captured the frustration.

“As a sports journalist, almost everything has come to a standstill. I cannot go to the field to broadcast local football matches, get content from players, coaches and officials during matches. Airing sports news bulletins is also now suspended at my work station.”

Icia reckons that the directive to work from home has also taken its toll, moreso financially. “Working remotely demands for internet connectivity and that means digging deeper into the pocket,” he said, adding that, “Travelling for the assignments comes with its benefits as apart from work, one gets allowances.”

With this now in the backburner, he notes that social order has been disrupted.

Radio Citizen’s Geoffrey Mwmaburi(L) commentates as Jacob Icia makes a face on a match situation.PHOTO/ Jacob Icia/Citizen Digital

Most importantly, Icia laments that sticking to a predictable daily routine, such as updating the portal, whenever such work is delegated to him by his editor has meant daily working routine with limited movement, which has affected sleeping patterns as one may work late into the night owing to digital journalism trends where stories must to be published as soon as they break up.

Most of all he laments the inability to churn as much content as he possibly can, thanks to the “dryness” of the sports docket and the missed glorious chance to grow ones personal brand due to the non-existent sports activities.

Bernard Ndong, a sports anchor and reporter with Citizen TV, famed for his in-depth and analytical reporting, says Covid-19 has hurt his 2020 work plan.

“In 2020, I was set to travel to South Africa (World Football Summit), the United Kingdom (London Marathon and Road to Anfield Tour), and Tokyo (2020 Olympics) for official duty. But as I picked up my new passport, I knew right there and then that I would not use it anytime soon as nations closed their borders to curb the spread of the virus. The unseen enemy that had disrupted the sporting calendar was now within our borders,” Ndong reminisces on the events of March 13 when Kenya announced her first case of Covid- 19.

On that eerie afternoon, Ndong was at the Immigration offices located at Nyayo House within Nairobi’s city centre to collect the new generation passport when Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, popped up on TV screens to announce a ‘Breaking News’ that Kenya had joined the league of nations with Covid-19 patients.

“I remember vividly when the first coronavirus case was announced in Kenya. I was at the Ministry of Immigration collecting the new E-passport on the 13th of March 2020. I was seated at the collection hall, with hundreds of other Kenyans waiting for our names to be called. A television set located above one of the counters was tuned to Citizen Television. The hall was relatively quiet as people murmured in low tones. Then suddenly, the hall went deathly quiet and almost everyone’s eyes were fixed on the screen. I turned as well, and I read with much trepidation, ‘Coronavirus yafika Kenya (Coronavirus reaches Kenya)’.

Kagwe, flanked by other government officials, was addressing the nation announcing the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case.

“Someone in the passport collection hall coughed, and he was looked at with a lot of disdain,” says Ndong,  the crowd’s reaction seen not just a disapproval of the act in public at such a time but the genuine fear held by the public.

On that eerie afternoon, Ndong was at the Immigration offices located at Nyayo House within Nairobi’s city centre to collect the new generation passport when Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, popped up on TV screens to announce a ‘Breaking News’ that Kenya had joined the league of nations with Covid- 19 patients.In this photo he’s preparing to deliver a bulletin. PHOTO/Bernard Ndong/Citizen Digital

An experienced journalist who has travelled the world covering major international events, the most recent being a trip to Egypt to cover the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals, Ndong reckons that content is king and sports journalist must make themselves relevant even in the face of the pandemic.

“In the news industry and also in the sports sector, content is king. Coronavirus had pulled the plug from our main source of news as all sporting events in the country were halted following a directive by the Ministry of Health banning public gatherings. The realization prompted me to tweet; I forecasted a bleak future for the sporting industry especially for sports journalists. How would we generate daily content? This prompted a drastic scaling down of duties in most newsrooms and as a sports anchor it meant that my presenting days would be put on hold for an indefinite time.  However, our news bulletins still required sports segments as well. As a producer, I had to improvise and was forced to broaden my scope of sports news sources,” he notes.

That meant employing different styles to source for news and as he attests, this option is not so popular, at least with the news sources.

“Local sports personalities are extremely apprehensive to have TV crews sourcing for news. They fear being infected by the virus, it’s understandable, and I also do. It’s a stalemate that requires innovativeness. If you don’t adapt to pick yourself up from COVID-19’s uppercut, you will remain sprawled on the canvas.”

“Thankfully, through my networks since the pandemic began, I have been able to do unique pieces of Kenyan sports personalities based in Italy, France, Algeria and Finland. This has helped me to remain relevant and satisfy the appetite of sports fans. It’s not easy, but we live in unprecedented times.

On the other hand, veteran journalist Elias Makori, who works as Nation Media Group Sports Managing Editor; overseeing sports content across the Group’s platforms, sums up the experience in two words: Surreal. Unprecedented.

He says, “Thundering bolt from the blue, the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed sports journalism, probably forever. Thanks to the edict of social distancing and restrained movement, the use technology in reporting has unwittingly been fast-tracked.”

Citing the experience at his own desk, Makori notes that, ‘the entire (20-strong) Sports Desk at Nation Centre – bar two print and as many online sub-editors – having to work from home, innovation has been key to survival’.

“Sports writers, erstwhile in the comfort zone of shuttling between press conferences and regurgitating press releases, besides previewing and reviewing weekend action in template fashion, have been unwillingly immersed into the world of critical thinking with long reads, news features and analysis the life jackets in this indefinite crisis.

How strong one’s contacts are, and one’s ability to multi-task in an increasingly converged genre, is an invaluable asset as impeccable sources have kept sports writers of repute afloat.”

“Worst hit are freelancers who have no action on the pitch to piggyback on, and with most media houses, the Nation Media Group included, having to reduce expenditure, freelance writers have been the first victims.

What’s clear is that sports journalism will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis with some splendor and ebullience. Cleansed. Hopefully,” Makori who has had a distinguished career spanning over two decades at the Twin-Towers, as the media house is commonly known in media circles, says.

Elias Makori receiving the 2012 IAAF World Journalist of the Year Award from Seb Coe in 2012..His longevity in the profession culminated in him winning the award, a feat he attained for his impeccable reporting.PHOTO/Courtesy/Elias Makori

His longevity in the profession culminated in him winning the 2012 IAAF World Journalist of the Year, a feat he attained for his impeccable reporting of that’s year’s Olympic Games held  in London. He remains the only Kenyan and African journalist to have earned such a feat.

Godfrey Ashiali, a soft-spoken journalist, who apart from on-air duties also doubles as the Desk’s Western Region Sports Coordinator and who has a biasness for covering AFC Leopards, one of Kenya’s most illustrious football clubs, laments that the pandemic has forced him to appear at work place only when it’s his time to go on air and leave immediately when he signs off.

Lack of KPL action has meant that Godfrey Ashiali can’t travel to cover his dear team play.

With the sports bulletins scrapped off on radio, he’s one of the sports personnel who has been deployed to Programming, in the meantime, hosting the breakfast show on Mulembe FM.

“It (the pandemic) has reduced if not killed face to face interactions with friends, and sports sources. This has also done injustice to sports news coverage halting football commentaries for AFC Leopards matches on Mulembe FM due to KPL league suspension. To this effect, sports shows have also had it rough with interviews limited to phone calls. At home, there is neither live football to watch nor lively sports shows we used to follow on TVs.”

Mutwiri Mutuota, a decorated athletics writer who went on to be the RMS pioneer Radio Sports Editor is unflinching in his analysis of the situation.

For lack of a better word, Mutuota feels offended by the virus. Hear him speak: “The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted my work in a number of ways I never thought possible. First, restrictions in personal movement, curfews and the almost total lockdown on sporting activity has forced us to resort to innovation to keep the production line running. For instance, we now encourage our respondents to use their phones to shoot themselves answering questions and sending videos back to us via WhatsApp to air.”

“ Containment measures has seen our team split into two with a working shift of two days on, two days off. This means I’ve not physically met half of my colleagues for over a month! We hold meetings via an app and it is strange to observe social distancing at the office, it’s like the whole human interaction factor has been eliminated in the work place.

A revered athletics writer, Mutwiri Mutuota is seen in this photo wearing a face mask at work, one of the preventive measures aimed at keeping the virus at bay. Like the rest of journalists he’s been inconvenienced by the pandemic/PHOTO/Courtesy

“Above all, the restrictions means all planned field trips have been iced and for someone who’s been a sports journalist for over 16 years now, it’s a hollow feeling. No buzz of fans cheering on their heroes, no interacting with the great sportspersons who make life worthwhile and being holed up in the office or home is frankly, not part of what we signed up to when we took up this job. However, this is a little inconvenience compared to the risk we run if we fail to observe the measures in place and it is my mission to be part of the comeback so, I’m keeping safe,” said Mutwiri, now a line producer at CGTN, China’s television network.

Gilbert Kiprotich, Citizen Digital’s chief athletics writer who also anchors news on Chamgei FM holds it personal in his experiences.

“I have had the rare chance to experience a pandemic which is being fought in all corners of the world. Before the outbreak I had only heard of the deadly Spanish flu that swept the world in 1918-1920. As a sports journalist and a passionate sports follower, the pandemic has since kept me away from what I love most – doing sports. I could not have imagined a world without football leagues and world marathons which has now led to boring weekends so to speak,” he lamented. “With no match reports, race reports or even press conferences to cover, my work has now been limited to chasing profile features for our sportsmen and women while working at home – not even at the office – unlike before when I could transit between the office and field.”

Like football, there has been little to cover on athletics leaving Chief Writer Gilbert Kiprotich crestfallen

Alex Isaboke, the Sports Editor at Capital FM, like many of his peers has been greatly affected moreso in content management but opines there is always a way out.

“I have been affected the most by the virus because my work entails writing and reporting about what’s happening on the pitch, court, pool, course or track. However, this has been curtailed by the virus since all sports have been shut down due to the pandemic, so yes the content has become minimal,” Isaboke says.

He adds: “This however does not mean work must stop. No, it doesn’t for the simple reasons that the bulletins that we produce six times a day must run, the website must be up to date at least after every hour and the live Saturday Show that runs for three hours must be produced and hosted.”

Alex captains the sports desk at Capital FM. PHOTO/Courtesy.

He reckons that incessant questions on lack of content and its event on his bulletins have at times gotten under his skin to say the least.

“I’m fed up of people asking me now that there’s no sports what are you reporting?…. My answer to them is that even the shutdown of sports by the virus is a story in itself that develops every day and our audience needs to be informed. So to achieve this I must be creative; if it’s profiling the athletes, following up how they are coping with the lockdown, how they are training differently et cetera. The advantage of radio is that we can do phone interviews and record to use.”

Across town at the Kijabe Street based Mediamax Limited, sports anchor and reporter Wanjiku Mwenda, who works with K24 TV, one of the networks under the company’s stable, weighs in. “With self-isolation and observation of social distancing, sportsmen and women have adopted to unusual but career-saving routines to help them keep fit.

This current trend has been symbiotic for both the sports personalities and myself in terms of saving and maintaining careers, for out of their adapting processes, I have so far managed to tell their stories, therefore creating content. The beauty about this is that, I have learned that I don’t necessarily have to be on location to get videos. Thanks to technology, I have now managed to feature more sports icons whose geographical locations previously proved the biggest barrier.”

K24 sports anchor Wanjiku Mwenda has been forced to adapt by embracing technology to file her TV reports.PHOTO/Courtesy/Wanjiku Mwenda

“For example, who would have thought I could tell Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei’s story (the 10,000m world champion). Previously, I would have travelled to Uganda to shoot his story but the other day I just had to do a video call with him. Now more than ever, I have managed to reach out to more Kenyan/African sports personalities who are trading their skills abroad.”

Wanjiku observes that the lessons learnt during this period are many.

“I am definitely convinced that when this pandemic is over, we will be in for a new normal, and we will have to do a lot of re-adjusting so that we can embrace new techniques in our profession,” she says.

Dennis Mabuka, Goal’s  sports editor in Kenya, decries the work-from-home trend, noting that with kids around needing attention, it’s utterly a challenging venture.

“With kids around you, you don’t concentrate fully. They keep making noise and will never give you room. This is unlike the office where you have time and space.

The pioneer editor in Kenya is also wary of the tough times that journalists are currently facing, with major media houses having instituted pay cuts for their employees. He notes that although his employer is yet to execute the same, everything points to the trend.

“These are hard times, difficult times for that matter. Apart from taking pay cuts, the area of concern is reduction of stories. We have a target of stories per day and this has reduced significantly because we don’t have sources to interview.”

BBC’s multimedia journalist Lynne Wachira says the industry is facing unprecedented challenges thanks to the virus, forcing adaption to changes and how things are done.

“I am mostly working from home and that in itself is a challenge for someone who is used to going out to gather content. The new norm has become conceptualizing an idea, reaching out to a sports person and trying to teach them how to do your job.”

“For videos, quality is compromised, if you are requesting for them (from the news sources).”

With little or no option, Wachira regrets that a journalist is left with no option but to use what is availed .

“Sports involve a lot of celebration, achievements, records and medals. We highlight that and put it into perspective, but those moments are not there now,” she regrets.

“Sports men are also finding it hard to let us into their private spaces – goals and aspirations, because they are also finding it hard to stay focused…”

Thanks to Covid-19, programmes such as Sporty Monday have been put on hold. PHOTO/Citizen Digital

But what will become of the sports world when the virus is contained? Will organisers roll out stiffer measures; say, for one, to secure an accreditation?

Ndong feels that it will no longer be the same. “Once the world overcomes this pandemic, global sports will be adversely affected. I foresee international travel to sporting events requiring competing athletes, officials, and media undergoing mandatory tests to determine if they have the virus. If a vaccine is developed before the end of the year, I envisage a COVID-19 vaccination card being a requirement for any international travel.

“Clearly, battling this virus will require a heightened level of self-discipline and mental fortitude. Luckily, most people in the sporting industry have these values as part of their DNA,” he concludes.

Sociologist Dr. Willice Abuya warns that going forward sports journalists will be cautious and keen on diversifying to other genres of reporting to cushion them from such effects, as witnessed by the Corona virus pandemic.

“Sports journalists can’t really work at home. They are accustomed to being out there in the field. When I check on BBC website to see what’s new all I find is pay cuts issues. In short, journalists are struggling to get worthy content. Most of them must be thinking; do I need a side hustle to move on with?”

RMS Journalists take a selfie ahead of a TV show.PHOTO/Citizen Digital

Abuya, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Community Development at Moi University adds that the long-term effect on sports journalists is caution. “They’ll be wary of specialising on sports alone. They’ll want to venture on something like politics, and be able to do both because politics will always work no matter the situation.”

On finances, Dr Abuya ends his expert view by twisting the knife on the backs of journalists with a rather comical view. “Sports journalists are so much used to being out in the field and travelling on international assignments. There is a lot of per diem involved and some would even take loans aware that they’ll pay it back after a trip to Mombasa or Italy; this will no longer be the case.”

Granted that the virus is highly contagious, it remains unclear how long it will take scientists and governments to tame the pandemic even as the number of infections and deaths continue to rise.

Cumulatively, the virus breakout has led t financial struggle by media houses, with all the major media houses in Kenya instituting pay cuts amongst the employees, the unlucky ones rendered jobless.

It is a situation that is likely to persist, with Media scholar Dr Sam Kamau noting that even in post Covid-19, things might not be bright for the media.

“The current disruption is a great opportunity for the media to adjust and adapt to the changing environment by seeking new revenue streams.

“Just like New York Times adjusted to digital disruption, Covid-19 has presented an opportunity for local media houses to analyze the emerging trends and audience behaviour to come up with innovative ways of generating revenues,” said Kamau, adding that media organisations will need to invest in new products or diversify into non-news businesses/products to help generate more revenue in order to stay afloat.