HomeOpinion & AnalysisThe curse of corrupt journalists

The curse of corrupt journalists

Imagine a world without journalists. Horrific, anarchic, confusing and confused, not worthy living in. In fact, a perfect case of hell on earth.

corruptionwatch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI

The media is the messenger, both loved and reviled, that plays a critical role in making us aware of who we are, what we are, how we are and where we are. Without it, we would all be life-sized tramps in the wilderness, naked, blind and sorry.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, put it just right some time in 2002 as he addressed journalists on security issues, pointing out that there were many things we don’t know, and also some things “we don’t know we don’t know”.

But then, as way back as 1837, Thomas Carlyle had elevated journalism to the rank of the “fourth estate” for its crucial role in promoting democracy and good governance by informing the citizenry and removing the thick veil of ignorance that Rumsfeld was worried about.

Edmund Burke, the English philosopher, had only identified three estates of government, namely the executive, judiciary and legislature. Carlyle realised that these arms of government couldn’t police themselves adequately, so there must be another and better estate that needs to play a watchdog role and “blow the whistle” for the sake of democracy and good governance. Enters the formal media.

Agents of corruption

That arrangement is good only when the media is perfect. The problem, though, is that in Zimbabwe, as in other parts of the world, there are journalists who make the media imperfect because they are willing and/or conscious agents of corruption — that disease of abusing office and positions for self-interested gains. They do all sorts of things to tuck away information of public interest, thereby creating a blanket of ignorance and creating a false reality.

This abuse takes many forms, but before zooming in on local media corruption, there is an interesting recent example of how journalists sometimes take unfair advantage of their stations to promote official attitudes and propaganda through falsehoods as we look away.

During Ghana’s 60th anniversary of independence last week, a state television crew focused on President Robert Mugabe as he arrived for the ceremony. A senior anchor covering the event described Mugabe as a “former soldier” who was still going strong and his colleagues keenly agreed with him.

I bet many people out there now believe Mugabe is genuinely a former soldier. That is wrong, of course, and a mischievous attempt to distort history. The truth is that he was the civilian leader of a political formation, Zanu, which used military methods through Zanla in revolting against the Rhodesian Front regime. To then say he became a soldier on account of that position is similar to saying he is still a soldier because he leads a Zanu PF government which controls the army where he is the commander-in-chief.

There is no doubt that the Ghanaian ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), has a firm hold on the national broadcaster and instructed its journalists to do a good PR job around Mugabe who, after all, it invited as an esteemed guest who grew his political career in that country in the 1950s. Journalists then take advantage of the blank cheque they get and become overzealous in twisting facts to suit certain institutional and individual interests. That is abuse of office, and abuse of office is corruption.

Back home, this form of abuse is all too familiar, especially within the state-controlled media. It usually adorns a political nuance as ruling party elites manipulate state journalists to suppress information or plant false news to fix foes or advance certain interests. Quite often, you hear news anchors reading out reports that seek to sanitise political figures named elsewhere in corruption scandals and other ills or accounts that brazenly label political competitors.

In some instances, reportage is selective. Some truths are edited out while some facts are given unfair prominence. Factionalism in the ruling Zanu PF is one of the factors driving this kind of corrupt reportage. Those that control the state media target their factional rivals for muck-raking while their favoured godfathers are sold as indelibly upright. Truth thus suffers. So do transparency and accountability that become victims the moment facts are muzzled or manipulated.

The problem is that many people hardly consider this as corruption, but that’s what it is in essence. I have seen and heard state media salute Grace Mugabe for donating to Zanu PF supporters, forfeited goods forcibly diverted from the customs department. This sanitises illegality and abuse of power by the president’s wife. And the moment the media anoints illegality and corruption, it becomes corrupt by collusion.

Shakedowns and fixes

The most common type of corruption among journalists takes the form of shakedowns and fixes. In this case, scribes solicit for or have bribes foisted on them to suppress stories and manipulate information. It is prevalent in both private and government controlled media. To illustrate this, I will refer to a personal account.

A couple of years ago, I was an editor with a local weekly when a group of home-seekers visited my office with a story relating to residential stands. A well-connected businessman had unilaterally reduced the sizes of their stands in a move that would see him pocket more than a million dollars.

The aggrieved home-seekers had visited all sorts of offices in their fight to have the property mogul reverse his move, to no avail. That is not all. They had also visited some publications so that the world would know about their plight, again to no avail.

That confused me, because it was clear that something was wrong with the way the businessman had handled the matter and I called him to get his side of the story. He promised to come back to me within an hour. But when I got a call, it was from a senior journalist from the private media who I have known for years. When he came over to my office, he advised me to drop the story and “get into talks” with the businessman. I was shocked and told him to ship out.

That was not the end. An hour later, I got a second call from another senior journalist, this time from the state media. He came over and I met him in his clearly expensive car, again with the same story. I said no and published the story. It was clear that the businessman had a syndicate of influential journalists doing his bidding because I also got unwanted calls from two or so other journalists trying to persuade me to drop this story. I shared this nasty experience with several key players in the media industry.

One state media editor to who I complained, acknowledged the prevalence of corruption among his juniors, joking that they were now jostling for parking space in the basement because reporters were buying big cars with bribes. Interestingly, he named one prominent politician who is now with the opposition as being among the biggest bribers of state journalists.

I am not too keen to accept poor remuneration as a factor that justifies the tendency among journalists to take bribes. The media industry, like many other sectors of the economy, is struggling and there are many reporters out there who would rather beg for transport money from friends than take bribes. That means those that dabble in this type of corruption are doing it out of greed and in flagrant defiance of the ethical tenets they must adhere to.

As they do that, many things are at stake. Suppression and manipulation of information undermine transparency and accountability. Corrupt journalists abet corrupt institutions and individuals. Above all, they bring a bad name to the profession of journalism and dent the public’s trust in the media. That is sad because it undercuts the watchdog legitimacy that is supposed to be associated with the fourth estate.

Tawanda Majoni is the national co-ordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information around public and private sector governance, transparency and accountability, and can be contacted on majonitt@gmail.com

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