You are an editor under deadline pressure and declining sales. The production manager says tomorrow’s paper is getting late, but the sales manager has just expressed grave concern at the low sales attributed to weak headlines over the past two weeks. What you need is a damn hot story to buy you some breathing space so you can refocus on strategy.
Suddenly you get a phone call from your news editor that a cabinet minister suffering a bit of malaria has vomited all over himself at a restaurant where your staff photographer was also having lunch and he has taken some clear shots already. Have you got the story you wanted, complete with pictures to tell the one thousand words?
Okay, it is not a minister throwing up, but a ‘philanthropist’ flashing three million dollars at the press. How would you have treated this story, with hindsight of course?
One option would be to ignore the story, in the interest of public decency. But you know that the competition will run with it, and the sales manager would never listen to your ethical arguments of not highlighting pervert conduct or protection of morality. And in any case, the splashing of unexplained wealth may be revolting to upright citizens but maybe some new readers you want to catch don’t find Ezra’s conduct repugnant.
So you have decided to run the story anyway. How do you ensure it does not leave you an accessory to the promotion of indecent conduct?
First and foremost is the need to question the genuineness of the dollar notes, just in case we are not talking merely of flashing but currency forgery on grand scale. If you are in phone contact with the reporter, call or text him to ask for proof that the dollars are genuine. If he is an owner of millions of dollars, Ezra should have no problem peeling off a few notes to be taken for verification. In any case Emin Pasha Hotel should have a detector, which many small shops in town also do.
But the most basic question to put to Ezra then would be, ‘why don’t you just show us a bank statement?’ It would certainly be more convenient for such an important man like him than to drag kilos and kilos of currency. But most important, the statement would have a third party authority to confirm that Ezra is not broke. There was no stamp on the stacks of cash to prove who they belonged to in the first place. The cash could be in the custody of anybody who is not its owner.
Even if Ezra would not answer those questions satisfactorily, the journalists would have done their bit and not appeared to be giving free advertisement to someone who is fighting his enemies or rivals, as he himself said.
In the event of Ezra’s non-cooperation, there would be several questions to ask other people. The media did well to check with Bank of Uganda who confirmed there is no law against flashing any sum of money – just like there is no law stopping a sickly minister from vomiting on himself in a restaurant. They also did well to talk to the police.
But they should also have talked to the hotel management and asked if Ezra had declared the money in his possession. This is the hotel where the British premier stayed during Chogm, if I am not mistaken. In these days of global terrorism and anti-money laundering measures, Emin Pasha management would tell the media the truth, so as not to appear to be a weak link in the anti-terror war.
Since the human interest angle of wealth was apparently irresistible, the media should have asked how long Ezra had booked at the hotel – after calling such attention to himself and displaying the huge sums of cash he was carrying, there was no further need to withhold client information in this case. How much had he paid? Using which means? How many rooms was he occupying? What extras had he taken?
These questions would not only enrich the human interest angle, they would also throw some light on the authenticity of the ‘tycoon’. Kampala is a city where every year hundreds of meetings are held in offices hired only for an hour or two by briefcase NGOs and businessmen to impress foreign donors who are passing through town.
What was the office for Uganda Appendicitis Sufferers Association an hour ago in a prime city location transforms into Uganda Society for the Protection of Lizards and Crocodiles. Did Emin Pasha really host Mr Ezra for several days indeed?
Finally, while running the story, would you as an editor put some statement disassociating the paper from the conduct of the subject being covered? Why do radio stations have to always say, “The views expressed on this show are not necessarily those of this station or its management”?
How real is the danger of the public assuming that you subscribe to whatever you publish? It is understandable if we cover rebel Joseph Kony’s atrocities. But what if he invited you to witness an execution?
About the Author: Joachim Buwembo is a Knight International Journalism Fellow based in Tanzania. He is a former managing editor of the Daily Monitor and Sunday Vision in Kampala, and The Citizen in Dar es Salaam.