This editorial was first published by The Observer.
Nearly 300 members and friends of the media fraternity spent last Wednesday afternoon in a conference hall at Golf Course hotel, discussing the media and politics in Africa.
The first in what will be a series of lectures on this subject was delivered by the renowned Zimbabwean media entrepreneur and activist Trevor Ncube. Among other investments, Ncube owns a controlling stake in Mail&Guardian, the successful South African media house with increasingly continental ambitions.
The African Centre for Media Excellence, the organisers of the lecture series, could not have chosen a more apt theme.
The relationship between media and politics is a most intricate one; the two are not expected to be bed fellows but are supposed to serve the same public interest; politicians wield power, journalists hold pens and pads; and while powerful politicians rightly demand respect, journalists focused on the public interest should not defer to politicians.
Navigating such a relationship is never going to be easy, and it is worth reflecting on some of the key messages from Trevor Ncube’s powerful lecture.
Ncube spoke out against what he called brown-envelope journalism. Why do we journalists go to cover an event and expect, even harangue, organisers to give us “transport refund” (just like those delegations to State House)?
This ‘refund’, moreover, is almost always more than we would have spent in fares. As Ncube said, people will not respect a journalist if they know they can easily buy him/her to report in a certain away. Where, Ncube asked, is our pride?
Ncube also advocated courageous journalism that does not give too much respect to politicians. He would, in fact, be happy to see presidents and ministers mocked in cartoons and words. One definition of courage is accurate knowledge of what one should not fear.
We need to remember that demanding accountability and seeking answers from our politicians, civil society, and businesses – on behalf of 34 million Ugandans – is a legitimate cause over which we should not be timid.
Obviously, Ncube addressed many other issues and these are only two. But journalists who approach politics with a mixture of sound ethical principles and professional courage would go a long way to serving the public interest.