What you need to know:
Idris Muktar Ibrahim rose from the trenches of Korogocho in Nairobi to become a high-flying producer at CNN. All seemed to be going extremely well for him as he produced news reports from every corner of the world and soaked in the greatness of Atlanta, USA, where the global broadcaster is headquartered. Then, just as his star was beginning to shine even brighter, he lost his job this year because of a tweet he made 10 years ago. In this reflective piece, he shares with BERNARD MWINZI the hard lessons on why the Internet really never forgets, and how his “wholly abhorrent and unacceptable” tweets from when he was a teen in the slums of Nairobi in July 2014 became his waterloo in 2022.
I was sitting in a poorly lit movie theatre in a slum area, surrounded by excited and rowdy crowds eagerly awaiting the start of the World Cup final match between Argentina and Germany.
As the kick off time approached, I checked my phone and saw that Twitter was filled with enthusiastic soccer fans, both for and against Germany, sharing their thoughts and using hashtags like #TeamGermany and #TeamHitler to show their support.
So I joined in and tweeted my support for Germany.
Ten years later, while working for CNN International in the United States, this tweet would cost me my job and all the hard work and dedication I had put into achieving my dream career.
At the time I made the tweets I was just a teenager bursting under the shadow of a continent often left out in cultural warfare and playing catch up with Western inventions.
A decade later, I was reduced to a tweet and labelled an anti-semite and supporter of the terrorist organisation, Hamas; terms that I only wrote about in my pieces or while producing a television package for the international broadcaster.
But I am more than a tweet. I produced for all the prominent correspondents on your screen and covered stories from South America to Ukraine, Africa to the Middle East.
Now it feels like people like me weren't meant to be here, not on this global stage. In retrospect, a lot of the people I grew up with never lived to celebrate their 18th birthdays or live to see their dreams come true.
But there I was, against all odds. I came not only out of the slums, but also jumped over the hurdles that came with them. If you live in a slum in Kenya, the way it's designed is that you are not supposed to come out. It's a dusty, tireless, backbreaking setup meant to decapitate one's dreams.
I want to provide a brief overview of myself before continuing. My name is Idris Muktar Ibrahim, and I hail from Nairobi, Kenya.
As a child, I grew up in the impoverished neighbourhood of Korogocho, where my family lived in a cramped and poorly constructed dwelling with a roof made of dilapidated metal sheets. My mother was originally from Ethiopia, while my father was of Somali heritage.
The poverty levels in Korogocho were so severe, the houses were packed so closely together they barely allowed space for personal movement.
When it rained, the most dreaded time of the season, we would gather cups and plates and place them around the house as leaked rainwater would not allow us to sleep. Cooking any meal involved buying what we could and hustling the rest from our neighbours, a pinch of salt here and a cup of extra flour or oil from the next. This seemed to be the norm in the neighbourhood.
We shared what the next person lacked. But at the end of the day, my mother ensured we always had something to fill our tummies.
I was raised to be a devout Muslim. My mother and father both preached peace, love, and kindness. But, unfortunately, my father wouldn't live to see the young boy he moulded for the world as his life was brutally cut short by robbers while he protected his place of work. He was a security guard.
In seeking answers to my father's death in the hands of robbers, I found a calling in journalism. In young democracies like Kenya, the press often fights for those who are voiceless.
Journalism is the foundation of social change, and I believed and hoped to find justice. I didn't find the answers, but my efforts weren't curtailed.
When I was 18 years old, I met a news reporter and camera team filming a story in our slum and knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. A year later, I got a scholarship to study at United States International University (USIU).
As a student I aggressively applied for internships with news stations and worked my way from an intern to a fixer to a producer working to make sure I was able to support my family at the same time attending university.
When I graduated from USIU, I had the honour to freelance-produce for CNN on various stories for many kind and talented journalists who took the time to nurture and guide me.
At the age of 25, I lived my dream life, telling stories I loved and cared for. I met people from all walks of life and had camaraderie with who's who in Africa.
My work and role defined me. I was in meetings with celebrities, key business leaders and politicians. On one shoot in Kenya, Equity Bank's Group Managing Director, Dr James Mwangi, brought a helicopter to take my crew and I to his hometown to film the beginnings of Equity Bank. I flew high, soaring above the clouds.
This was just a kid from Koch (short for Korogocho), a statement I carried wherever I went. Still, a ‘Kochbaby’ always reminds me of my humble beginnings and motivates me to keep going.
In 2020, I was hired by Germany broadcaster Deutsche Welle as a junior correspondent for East Africa. At this point my star was shining and I was on TV and reporting internationally, giving nuance to local stories and explaining the region to a global audience.
Back in Koch, I had become an example that parents would use when narrating success stories to their children, a model to be emulated. I didn't see this coming, not for a boy who grew up listening to gunshots and wails of women and men being robbed of their hard-earned salaries, or a mere wage on the weekend as they trudged through the streets of Korogocho.
As I said, I was flying high, both literally and figuratively. One week I was in Mombasa. The next I was in Addis Ababa or Johannesburg, wherever the story would take me.
Then the most profound thing happened; I was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a Journalism and Documentary Master's programme, with a full-ride scholarship. I moved to the United States. Berkeley was incredible. Amidst the culture shock and learning to live in the West's so-called mecca of liberalism, I was awarded the Mastercard Fellowship, Human Rights Center Fellowship, and the Foreign Correspondent Award. While at it, I was drawn to stories of communities overcoming adversity. I was therefore constantly researching and working on stories about the US's most marginalised migrants and communities of colour. I graduated in May 2022.
I then accepted my dream job at CNN, where I was hired as a Newsdesk Producer on the international desk in Atlanta.
I thought life couldn't get any better until I contributed to the reporting on a piece about the Israeli elections, and a pro-Israeli media watchdog investigated me. They dug deep into my tweets from when I was still a teen in the slums in July 2014 and found two that were, in my opinion, wholly abhorrent and unacceptable.
(You can read the article they published here.
They called for my firing from CNN, and the network complied. I don't blame my former employer, to be honest. As the world's leading news network, they cannot have someone in their employment tweeting vile bigotry. Honestreporting.com also contacted various outlets to retract my awards.
It's a catchy news story: Berkeley Grad, a CNN producer, professes support for #teamhitler and terror group Hamas. I would click on it, as many of you would.
But one part of the story is missing, my side.
Why did I write those tweets? Like many Africans, I was not exposed to historical facts such as the Holocaust. Growing up in a post-colonial Kenya, where my grandparents and their families went through horrible crimes from the colonialism masters, and where marginalisation and incessant genocidal-style massacres were still rife, we were so busy entangled in our struggles and freedom. Still, I would have never condoned such historical facts as what happened to the Jews. Grappling with the rise of social media, we tweeted in ignorance, yet had I been appropriately exposed, I would have never tweeted such things.
To give some context, in 2006, as a child, I supported Germany's Bayern Munich. I remember my aunt bought me a knocked-out Bayern Munich kit during the 2006 World Cup, and I wore that uniform whenever I went out to play with friends. We had a Sheng song for Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper: "Oliver Kahn would die for the team!" It was this love for a football team, nothing more to it.
The #teamhitler reference was me following a Twitter trend that I thought was "cool," supporting Germany during the World Cup. I deeply, wholly regret it and reject it, but I promise you my 18-year-old self meant no harm.
Do I hate Jews? No, I don't. I do not support anti-semitism, killing Jewish or any other people, or hate any particular community. In fact, through some of my profound friendships with people with Jewish backgrounds or who practise the Jewish faith, I have learned and discussed documentaries such as Night and Fog, in which filmmaker Alain Resnais documents the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz ten years after the Holocaust. This is the man I am today, not the teen in the slums of Nairobi.
Do I like Hitler? No, I don't. Once I learned of his crimes and actions, I not only came to despise him but could not understand how someone could hold so much hate to want to eradicate an entire group of people.
Do I support Hamas? Not the violence. After knowing all that entails the Arab-Israeli conflict, I don't condone violence nor show solidarity for any political ideology that resorts to violence, whether it be from Israel or Hamas. I am passionate about advocating for human rights, just like most of the stories I covered. Unfortunately, at the time of my tweet, I had a minimal understanding of what the group stood for. Again, I am sorry to anyone who felt hurt by my tweets in agreement with the group's call to arms to defend their country.
Do I dislike Israel? Of course not. Israel, like any other country, has the right to exist. Like anyone else, I may not agree with all of its policies, and in the same vein, I can't entirely agree with all the policies of my native country, Kenya. But that does not mean I hate Israel or its people.
In places like my home country Kenya, things like this would be taken in vain, but with the seriousness of this issue and in a world coming to terms with its past, I sought forgiveness through a statement on Twitter, took time to reflect, and reached out to my Jewish friends, a lot of whom I had shared meals and long conversations over the past years, friends that I went to school and shared classes with. I reached out to the Minnesota Jewish Community about my Lionel Messi tweet, and to the Israeli consulate in Atlanta to discuss my Hamas tweet. I took seriously all the voices that were hurt by that tweet as I didn’t mean to hurt anyone's feelings. I am morally compelled to take responsibility and apologise.
Over the past month, many people have reached out to me, including former colleagues, friends and classmates. But, unfortunately, a lot of those who know me personally felt gutted and helpless in defending me because we live in an internet world where words might be lost in translation or easily misinterpreted.
I was reduced to a tweet when I received the call from the CNN's Executive director of Coverage, the person who hired me for the role, and neither my skills nor my global contacts would save me at that point.
"It's company policy and due to the online uproar and the nature of this, we have to let you go. I am sorry, Idris."
And that was it. A snap, and it's all gone, just like that.
In a real court, I could quickly be acquitted because of the statute of limitations, but no, not in a court of public opinion or the internet world where an overzealous, blindly opinionated crowd will quickly judge anything that comes their way without any basic understanding of the subject matter or context.
We live in the Age of the Internet, which has tremendously revolutionised the way our lives operate and made it easy to access people and things. Today, through Twitter you can call out your area representative for bad governance, or can seek better services and advocate for life-changing causes. However, it is also becoming the Ground Zero of fake news.
In this world of Cancel Culture, this crowd attempts to end an individual's career for violating moral norms considered popular in some circles or societies. For journalists, it includes an attempt to discredit their work. Many journalists like me today have been cancelled because of an old tweet or something they said before. Aren't we all human beings subject to evolving and changing opinions? Isn't Cancel Culture an attempt to shut all of us, curtailing the progress made on free speech?