PENS FOR HIRE: African Journalists and the Promotion of Bad Leadership

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On 18 September 2012, Ghana’s Daily Guide reported that Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) had compromised about 10 senior journalists in Ghana by doling out cash and properties worth an average of GH¢500,000 to each of them. According to the report, the journalists, who also doubled as regular guests on radio and television, had initially been intensely critical of the NDC government, particularly when John Evans Atta Mills was still president. However, the journalists suddenly reversed their criticisms when President John Mahama assumed the presidency, apparently because of the alleged inducements.

In South Sudan on August 17, 2012, a number of reporters working for radio, newspapers and South Sudan TV told the Sudan Tribune that they had witnessed colleagues taking payments in return for writing positive stories or taking the news angle desired by certain politicians.

General bribery and extortion are major problems in journalism the world over, and particularly in developing countries in Africa and across the globe, according to a report released in September, 2010 by the American Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA). It is not uncommon in Africa for political leaders to use intimidation or irresponsibly spend the people’s money to buy the media to sing praises of their failed policies and repair their bruised egos.

Journalism, the fourth estate, morally and professionally mandated to protect and safeguard democratic values in the society, has succumbed to the pressures of poverty and moral depravity and become simply another tool for African politicians. It is now, unfortunately, journalists, the co-guardians of democracy and good governance that have joined the ranks of immoral lawyers and corrupt businessmen in maintaining or even creating bad leadership in Africa, as they put personal interest ahead of their professional ethics. With the dawn of the worldwide web and the advent of online publications and blogs, the field of journalism is attracting the unemployed and the uneducated who do not know any journalistic ethics or any other ethics except the ethics of the empty stomach.

The bribery of journalists, an act that diminishes the prestige and nobility of the profession, has been blamed on poverty and on the poor salaries that journalists across Africa receive. A September 2008 survey conducted in Liberia by the Liberia Media Centre with support from ActionAid Liberia found that of the one hundred and thirty eight (138) women interviewed who were working in the media either as journalists or one description or another, 41.3 percent were earning less than US$50.00/month. This is approximately 3500.00 Liberian dollars and is not sufficient to sustain even a single person for a month who must amongst other things, be transported to and from work. Like the female journalists, their male counterparts were also affected by low wages. Journalists are therefore compelled to seek unprofessional means to ensure an acceptable living standard.

The research literature on the scourge is growing with a view to curbing its undesirable impact on democracy and governance in Africa. This is important. The “pocket over morals syndrome” is a cancer that is now malignant and is metastasising, affecting both the public and the private sectors of society, and especially African leadership.

In Malawi, upon ascending to the presidency in April 2012, President Joyce Banda appointed six journalists into the state house press office. All six journalists had formerly been spearheading the creation of a negative public image for Joyce Banda’s predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika. They had been writing stories and articles that primarily were strongly critical of Mutharika’s administration. Of the six, one was moved from being an editor at The Malawi News, the pioneering and oldest weekly in Malawi. The other was a senior reporter who, surprisingly, had previously through his articles and on his personal blog been a strong Mutharika supporter, but who inexplicably changed his incline amid allegations of receiving huge sums of money from Joyce Banda. These journalists wrote with malice against Mutharika and quickly ran to the front of the queue when he died to pick up the spoils, the moral bankruptcy of this conduct being lost on both the President and the Journalists themselves.

During the hot debate that drove the wedge between Mutharika and his deputy Joyce Banda, the debate regarding the preference of Mutharika to have his brother Peter take over the leadership of the DPP instead of Joyce Banda, journalist Kondwani Munthali, now a Press Officer for Joyce Banda’s deputy, Khumbo Kachali, was writing avidly on his blog. He was writing well-researched and well-argued articles supporting President Mutharika and his choice of Peter Mutharika as the one to succeed him. Munthali even interviewed Peter Mutharika and wrote a glowing biography of the DPP politician. Then suddenly, as Joyce Banda’s push as an opposition leader gathered momentum, Munthali changed his position. These days, he is at the forefront castigating Peter Mutharika and other opposition politicians in Malawi.

Recently, when The Nation newspaper conducted a poll on who Malawians desired most to be their leader, and Peter Mutharika came out on top, the former editor Steven Nhlane was first to dispute the poll and assure the president that her mandate was as strong as ever, instead of pointing out to her that the poll indicated that there were issues she needed to improve upon and address. When thousands of Malawians marched in protest against the bad leadership policies of Joyce Banda and her adherence to the oppressive dictates of the IMF, which have brought Malawians severe hardship, it was these journalists that discredited the protests strongly, falsely assuring Joyce Banda that all was well, and that the protesters were simply a handful disgruntled political activists.

One member of the Joyce Banda press office, Brian Banda, who previously ran a news show program on a private radio station was on the pay roll of Joyce Banda, while she was Vice President, receiving brown envelopes every Friday at her then official residence, Mudi House, in the city of Blantyre. For this, he abused his privilege as a staffer of the radio to line up journalistically unwarranted interviews with Joyce Banda where questions were deliberately slanted in her favour to discredit the sitting president at the time.

The issue can be even more severe. In Malawi, an unqualified member of staff at State Broadcaster Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington Kuntaja, has just been rewarded with a senior position for being allegedly a spy for Joyce Banda and Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu. Kuntaja was appointed Director of News and Programs, despite having no formal journalism qualifications apart from a horde of certificates of attendance to seminars and workshops. The appointment was made despite the organisation advertising the post and looking for candidates with graduate and post-graduate qualifications. Kuntaja never applied for the post, obviously knowing that he did not meet the criteria. His appointment was made without any interviews. His appointment apparently is meant to ensure that the Joyce Banda administration and her People’s Party gets the much needed unfair advantage in terms of coverage over other political players. This is against the very promise that President Banda made during her first state of the nation address in May 2012 that she wanted to see the State Broadcaster become open and fair to all dissenting voices.

Banda’s Transport Minister, Sidik Mia has a committee of journalists from both the private and public media organisations to stage and spin stories in his favour, discredit his enemies, and ensure that bad publicity against him is nipped. Many more examples abound.

A study published in “African Communication Research” journal by the University of Tanzania found that academic research in this area was clustered around four main topics: documentation of brown envelope journalism; consideration of the impact of poor economic conditions; analysis of the political and social influence; and discussion of ethical and professional concerns. The paper proposed three directions for further research, namely, empirical, anthropological and philosophical studies on bribery in journalism with the view to interrogate the phenomenon as an exemplar of wider professional and ethical issues.

While the kind of research advocated by the study will certainly help illuminate the issue, it is important to recognize that the corruption of journalistic morals is also an important public policy and political leadership matter that Africa needs to address at a deeper level than simply as a matter of academic research.

Journalists will invariably and inevitably be appointed by leaders and administrations as press aides and press officers. What is important in these situations therefore is to have systems that ensure that journalists are forced to remember that more than at any other time in their careers, it is at this time when they are close to power that they need to uphold the dignity of their noble profession and hold high its ethical standards.

Journalists working for African leaders have an enormous responsibility to be honest and to be professional, and to encourage astute leadership by providing responsible media advice to our leaders. They should not lose or sell out their morals and beliefs while promoting bad leadership in a hand-clapper fashion. Similarly, those journalists that are working in independent media ought not to apply their profession with an eye at the state house, as is often the case in Africa.

As the continent continues to grapple with the many problems that are attacking it relentlessly, it is a disturbing thought that instead of holding hands with those that seek to make Africa a better place by demanding more accountability from its leaders, African journalists are so willing and ready to promote corrupt leadership by putting their pens out for hire to the highest political bidder.

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