Journalists in ethical quandary over free goodies from government

You are a journalist and government has decided to give you 40 iron sheets. Would you accept them?

That is the question being asked and debated in the northern Ugandan district of Lira, after government, through the Office of the Prime Minister, selected 25 journalists to receive 40 iron sheets each as a ‘resettlement package’.

The Minister of State for Northern Uganda, Rebecca Amuge Otengo, launched the distribution of the sheets on 29 October 2014, and the following day, some beneficiary journalists were queuing at the office of the Chief Administrative Officer, to pick their goodies.

According to the Journalism Code of Ethics by the Independent Media Council of Uganda, “A journalist shall not solicit, accept bribes or any form of inducement meant to bend or influence professional performance”.

However, beneficiary journalists who spoke to ACME said the iron sheets are a resettlement package and not a bribe from the government.

Mr Phillips Ogile, a reporter with Radio Unity in Lira, claims that he does not know how he got on the list of beneficiaries, but adds he has no problem receiving the iron sheets and that “even some editors are receiving”.

“Like other people from the north, we [journalists] also suffered. If government has given us iron sheets, we shall receive it but it doesn’t mean we shall be compromised as journalists,” says Ogile.

For two decades a war between Joseph Kony’s rebel force, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Government of Uganda ravaged the north of the country. When the guns fell silent in 2006, government and development partners launched various resettlement programmes, some of which included distribution of iron sheets, seeds and farm implements. The items are typically distributed to households in need, raising the question why these journalists were chosen to get iron sheets.

Mr Hudson Apunyo, a reporter with the New Vision, also on the list of beneficiaries, says he wrote to his editors, for advice on whether to receive the handout but he is yet to get feedback.

However, Apunyo says as journalists, they are part of the society in which they work and coming from northern Uganda, the iron sheets come as “a good thing”.

“I am getting it as part of the community that suffered during the war.”

He adds: “There was a time we [journalists] told [President] Museveni that we also suffered during the war and we should also be considered for some package for resettlement. That was in 2009 and the items have just come.”

Mr John Baptist Wasswa, a media educator and analyst says if the journalists are getting the iron sheets as part of the community for resettlement, then he has no problem with it and as long as it is not “a political act. Otherwise it will compromise their integrity”.

He says the difficulty is that the beneficiaries have been identified by their profession – journalism – which raises possibility that their independence may be compromised.

In an interview with Daily Monitor’s Bill Oketch, Mr Emmanuel Opio the Editor Rhino FM said he would not pick the iron sheets.

“The fact that we suffered war for over 20 years does not mean we should be ‘yes’ people. When something is wrong, we should talk about it,” Opio is quoted as saying.

Mr Moses Odokonyero, the Programmes Manager of Northern Uganda Media Club, an organization that brings together journalists working in and from northern Uganda, agrees with Opio.

”While I appreciate the fact that journalists, like the rest of the community in northern Uganda were affected by the two-decade long conflict in the region, I don’t support the idea of them picking iron sheets from government because it raises very serious ethical issues that can make the journalists and the media houses that they work for lose credibility in the eyes of the public,” Odokonyero says.

He adds: “What makes the act even more serious is that the journalists are reported to have received the iron sheets from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the very office where unscrupulous officials swindled 50 billion shillings meant for post conflict recovery in northern Uganda … how will these journalist cover post-conflict recovery efforts in region, an activity coordinated by OPM?”

However, Mr Peter Nyanzi, an editor with The Independent, says if only journalists were getting the iron sheets, and not other households in the region, then that would be an issue.

“As you know, the majority of our journalists there could hardly afford 40 iron sheets from their meagre pay, so if the resettlement package is available for them, I wouldn’t see it as a problem and I doubt it would stop them from speaking out against the misdeeds of public officials in the region,” he says.

“Besides, I think it is better if they are given these things as a group instead of the government singling out individual journalists as recipients of these benefits,” he adds.

Nevertheless there is growing fear that such packages could be used by the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), to bait journalists ahead of the 2016 general elections.

While the journalists in Lira who spoke to ACME insist that receiving the items does not raise an ethical issue, Mr Wasswa says there should be queries on why the iron sheets are being given out now.

“Government has been resettling a lot of people in the north. So why now?” he wonders.

Additionally, last week, the Observer newspaper reported that the NRM promised to pay journalists for positive news coverage of its activities, “with ‘friendly’ journalists likely to get heifers and laptops”.

According to the paper this followed the signing of an agreement between the Presidency Minister Frank Tumwebaze and some journalists in Kabale District mobilized under a group known as the Kabale NRM Media Activists. Tumwebaze later disputed the veracity of this report.

Mr Nyanzi says: “… the main worry is that as we head into 2016, we are likely to see more of these gifts being handed out to journalists for obvious political reasons. So journalists and media houses have to be on the lookout.”

In 2011, the Uganda Media Development Foundation released a report titled, Media and Corruption, which details corruption in the media, some forms of which includes the ‘brown envelope’. In the report, one of the authors, Gewaya Tegule, asked “who will watch the watchdog” since corruption has sunk its teeth in the profession?

He asserted that the media has lost focus and “has relegated its watchdog role to the garbage bins of history [and] more interested in making ends meet from day to day than pursue the nobler objective of being a lighthouse for society”.

Past cases

In March 2014, a list containing 100 names of so-called ‘pro-Mbabazi journalists’ circulated on social media. These journalists were reportedly to be paid money ranging from Shs3 million to Shs16 million for favourable reporting on Amama Mbabazi’s presidential bid, a claim some of the journalists denied. Mr Mbabazi was in September dropped as Prime Minister.

In 2011, there were reports that the government had earmarked Shs3.2 billion to pay journalists annually to promote positive coverage of government activities, especially the oil sector, according to the Observer. Media owners and editors publicly condemned the move, arguing that it went against the ethics of the profession.

In 2010, the Daily Monitor reported that some journalists covering the NRM delegates’ conference had asked for and received Shs4 million from party officials, drawing criticism about integrity and their independent coverage of the upcoming general polls scheduled for the following year.

The Uganda Journalists Association (UJA) also came under fierce criticism for taking Shs150 million from President Museveni in 2009, with some of the members photographed while holding wads of the cash. The journalists were also accused of swindling the money and failing to provide accountability.

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Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer

Email: hanena@acme-ug.org  Twitter: @ahpetite

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

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