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The Day The Sword Proved Mightier Than The Pen

Life as a newspaper owner is rarely peaceful. You have to fight with everyone, from politicians to advertisers to a hooded gang of violent men waving AK-47s in the Nairobi night. Cue: Paul Melly’s worst day.

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A few minutes past midnight on March 2, 2006, Paul Melly received a call from one of his senior managers who had news no one wanted to hear and few could believe. The Standard Group head offices, the panting caller said, was being raided by a gang of armed and hooded assailants.

It sounded like a prank call, but April 1 was still 29 days away. If Melly had any doubts, two more phone calls from a senior journalist and a director confirmed that the media house he heads was under attack.

Paul Melly

“It started as a nightmare scenario,” recalls Melly, who was vice chairman and strategy adviser to the company, which owns The Standard newspaper and Kenya Television Network (KTN). “Signs at the hour were that the Communication Commission of Kenya was dismantling our television transmission equipment. But then I told myself, a regulator can’t come at night. A higher hand than the regulator’s was involved and the magnitude of the event suggested a force that had some strong, invisible hand.”

If that was bad news, worse was to come. An hour later, Melly received more reports that another group had invaded Standard Group. This time, it was the newspaper printing press. The gang attacked and kidnapped staff, stopped the presses and was burning newspapers. A news gatherer was making the news, in the midst of a rare crisis. How could anyone handle such a disaster?

It was a world away from the optimism on the day when Melly joined Standard Group in 2004. His job description was clear: transforming a fledgling media house on the verge of losing money and public confidence.

The Standard Group is Kenya’s second largest media house, which runs The Standard newspaper, the country’s first private television station and magazine distribution. The newspaper and television station have won fans because of their independent approach to news. It is the scourge of government and its officials, and it splashes stories that its rivals dare not touch. In an exclusive eight years ago, it revealed President Kibaki had a second wife. A few months later, the Sunday Standard questioned Kibaki’s fitness and suitability to be head of state after speculation over the president’s ill health, following a freak accident on the campaign trail.

It was a tough row to hoe. The Standard, Kenya’s oldest newspaper that was started in 1902, struggled to win over new readers and KTN kept losing viewers to newer and more nimble broadcasters. Operational costs were on the increase, especially newsprint, and the struggle to secure the most talented journalists was draining the coffers of newspapers. At the same time, turnover slackened and profitability plunged.

With no training or experience in journalism, Melly was an unlikely choice for the highest management position in the group. He is a finance man, with a Masters degree in accounting and finance.

“Not being a trained journalist represented a strength in looking at things from a fresh point of view, challenging the status quo and always pursuing the ‘why strategy of asking why can we not do this or that’ without the inhibition of journalism experience,” Melly told FORBES AFRICA at the company’s new headquarters on the outskirts of Nairobi.

The position, he says, required leadership skills, which he had in plenty from the Capital Markets Authority, a government-run industry regulator, where he had worked for a dozen years, 10 of them as chief executive officer. He presided over reforms, including the demobilization of shares, which is the conversion into electronic form, and the automation of the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE), now called the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

Since December 2004, when he joined, he says Standard Group’s fortunes have improved. Turnover had grown from Sh1.7 billion ($20 million) to Sh3.1 billion ($36.5 million) by December 2010. Shareholders’ equity has increased fivefold, while profits have tripled, from near loss, to Sh453 million ($5 million).

“Figures speak for themselves,” he says as he takes me through the annual report for 2010. These numbers pale next to those of the rival, Nation Media Group, that turns over twice as much, with triple the profits, but they are big enough to toast with champagne at Standard Group.

Standard Group was far from ready when the hooded gang descended with AK-47s in hand. They stormed into rented head offices in the city center, arresting staff, confiscating computers and dismantling transmission equipment. At the printing works, they burned newspapers as they rolled off the press. Indeed, the events of Wednesday, March 2, 2006, played out like a Hollywood action movie.

“To say it was my worst day is an understatement,” says Melly.

The raid was executed with the precision of a commando operation and its magnitude showed it was not the work of casual criminals.

“Because the raiders were hooded and accompanied government security personnel with people of Caucasian origin, it immediately occurred to me it was sabotage on our operations,” Melly says.

There was speculation that the raid was aimed at pre-empting a negative story on senior people in government.

“It was just intimidation. The headline that day was ‘Champions of KCSE (Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education)’ celebrating the performance of schools. Those who were burning them must have been ashamed because they were burning newspapers with positive content about our children. There was no content found in any of our offices that was being contemplated for publication or published. And if there was, arrests would have been made and people charged. That story was a conspiracy by those behind the raid to justify their actions,” says Melly.

When it comes to dealing with crisis, Melly says he takes one step at a time, avoiding hasty decisions. “You must analyze the situation with a reasonable level of clarity,” he advises. As he did that, he moved to reassure his colleagues and staff that all would be fine and they would prevail.

“I received calls from many people, but I did not make any attempt to call anybody in government or people I know. My desire was to gather more information as necessary rather than spread the panic. We needed to know, for instance, how many were the raiders, how were they dressed, armed, and find out if there were any hallmarks of government support. And given that they used government vehicles, the fact that some of our employees were being taken into police custody was enough to suggest that the operation was instigated by government.”

Standard Group lost advertising revenue in the newspaper, circulation, TV and editorial content in its news repository, crucial data on its magazine distribution division and hundreds of computers, all running into millions of dollars. Operations were crippled and something had to be done, and quickly.

As a leader, Melly had to think on his feet, answer anxious calls and maintain his cool.

By 6am, he says, he had in place a strategy, with key objectives of getting KTN back on air and repairing the printing press to have a paper on the streets the next day.

First, Melly rallied support among journalists, politicians and diplomats in defense of the freedom of the press. He assembled a legal team to assess the issue and free arrested journalists.

The key was to resume operations as fast as possible while assessing the damage.

“We managed the situation within a day. In the evening we were up and running and KTN had resumed operations. We acquired new computers and assembled new software. We managed to repair the damage to our press as we couldn’t get another media house to print for us. The Standard was on the streets the following day.”

Last but not least, what it took is courage. “When you are right, nothing can fail you,” says Melly.

“When I was growing up, my grandparents instilled in me a strong culture of determination and responsibility early in life. Being the first born, I started making contributions to family matters early, managing resources and leading others. More importantly, my grandparents always told me that in life you must go to the destination you have identified no matter the bottlenecks, and you must learn to overcome them the same way a river manages to overcome hills and barriers. However, you must not be reckless. Always be tactful.”

Melly says the team is now better prepared. The company has set up additional electronic surveillance devices allowing the station to be able to beam any future raid live on TV.

Looking back, he admits some failures.

“It took time for us to resume operations. At that moment we did not have an elaborate contingency plan. We took virtually the whole day. We have learnt the lessons.”

So why is he still restless?

“The mystery of it all is that I cannot, as the person leading this business, tell you why the raid was conducted. Because there was no shred of evidence that was provided either directly or indirectly to suggest that there was an illegality being committed or contemplated on our part as a media house or by any of our journalists, and I can only second guess that the overall objective was to dismantle a fierce independent media house in an attempt to cow the entire media in the country.”

If there is a next time, at least he will be prepar

What did he learn?

“I would want to characterize it as a defining moment not only in media operations and survival, but also as a major test on me in my professional career… Perseverance keeps you going, even in adversity.”

What did the government say?

The Kenya government confirmed it ordered police to raid the offices of The Standard newspaper and its sister TV station. The newspaper had been critical of President Mwai Kibaki’s handling of corruption scandals. The government had repeatedly accused The Standard of fabricating stories. Internal security minister John Michuki said the raids on the Standard Group in Nairobi were designed to protect state security. “If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it,”
he said.

A police spokesman said in a statement hours after the raid that authorities conducted the sweep to collect evidence about a plot that threatened national security. Jasper Ombati, the police chief at the time, said the police had evidence that Standard journalists were being paid to incite ethnic hatred and write fabricated articles about the government. He said security officers acted on intelligence information about “an intended act” that would threaten national security. He confirmed that police officers routinely wore masks to hide their identities in sensitive cases such as The Standard raid. Little has been heard from the government since then.

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