By Peter G. Mwesige
The chaos and shame of the primary elections of Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement, which climaxed into the delegates conference at Namboole over the weekend, gave local journalists a lot of news to cover.
Then the journalists decided to become part of the news. The Daily Monitor reported on September 13 that some journalists covering the NRM’s delegates conference asked for and received Shs 4 million shillings (USD1,800) from party officials. A party official confirmed he had indeed given the journalists money after they confronted him with a list of those who were covering the proceedings.
Several young journalists who believe it is wrong for journalists to accept money from the people they cover have called me to express their outrage about the actions of some of their colleagues who covered the NRM’s conference. One described how journalists were fighting for money just like the delegates who had been bused in from all over the country. “It was so shameful,” she said. She was also concerned that we were about to see a repeat of the 2006 election campaigns where journalists used to register with different party officials to get paid for doing what their organisations pay them to do.
The practice of journalists accepting money from sources has come to be known as brown envelope journalism in many parts of Africa. Elsewhere it is sometimes called cheque book journalism. It is a deeply rooted and institutionalised practice in Uganda.
This practice takes several forms. In some cases, journalists work for media houses that have clear (but obviously questionable) policies that require sources to pay for transport (and sometimes meals) for the journalists who cover them. In others, journalists approach sources or event organisers and boldly ask for money before they provide any coverage. Others sometimes go back to the sources after they have published their stories and either hint on expecting a reward for a job well done or directly ask for their payoff. Many event organisers have now decided to set aside a budget for media coverage. After a press conference or such related media event, they will ask all the journalists present to sign for their envelopes.
These practices are generally considered unethical under both local and international journalism codes of ethics. According to Uganda’s statutory professional code of ethics, “No journalist shall solicit or accept bribes in an attempt to publish or suppress the publication of a story.”
But some Ugandan journalists do not consider accepting a transport refund from a press conference organiser as bribery. They call it “facilitation.” I am yet to attend a media workshop in Uganda where journalists can reach some consensus on what is acceptable and what is clearly unethical.
Mainstream media houses such as The Monitor and The New Vision have in recent months published reminders about the integrity of their journalism and reminded the public that they don’t have to pay journalists in return for coverage. Indeed, these media houses provide their journalists with transport (and sometimes meal allowances) for covering different events.
Some journalists from smaller media houses rationalise their willingness to accept money from sources on the grounds that they don’t get any transport and related allowances from their organizations. Others blame it on poor pay.
But the list of journalists who have signed for brown envelopes or quietly received money from sources suggests that the practice is not limited only to poorly paid journalists or those from smaller media houses.
It doesn’t matter what media house a journalist works for. Accepting money from sources degrades the integrity of journalism.
Some of the young journalists who have called me to express their concern about this practice have asked if we can’t organise some training workshop to address the issue. But too many workshops have covered the question of ethics, including accepting money from sources, and the practice is still with us.
What we need are stronger self-regulatory mechanisms within the industry. Local media houses should emulate The Monitor and The New Vision and routinely remind the public that their journalists are not allowed to accept money from the sources they cover.
ACME recently invited editors, regulators, training institutions and representatives of media associations to a consultative workshop to discuss a draft of proposed media guidelines for the coverage of the 2011 elections. One of the principles in those guidelines relates to bribery and corruption among journalists. The idea was that media houses should develop these guidelines in a participatory process, sign on, and share them with the public. Journalists and their media houses would then be held accountable against those very standards they have set themselves.
Under such guidelines and the integrity notices that Vision and Monitor have shared recently, journalists who are found to have accepted money from sources should be shown the door or face some serious sanctions and this should be publicized.
We also need more media owners who understand that it’s their business to provide for their journalists. They should pay their journalists well if they care about the quality of their final product.
Obviously, the question of ethics in journalism is a complex one. It involves the personal conscience and values of the journalist, the values of the organisation as well as those of society.
Some have argued that envelope journalism is a reflection of the corruption in our broader sociopolitical system. But this does not absolve the journalist. We should hold ourselves against higher standards than those by which we hold the people we cover.
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About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He has worked as Group Training Editor for the Nation Media Group, head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University where he was also a senior lecturer, and executive editor of the Monitor.