DAR ES SALAAM - All too frequently, journalists in Africa are paid by their news sources, particularly politicians, who want to influence how they handle the news. Called brown envelope journalism, it has become a common occurrence in many countries, compromising reporters and editors and undermining the independence of the media.
Some journalists loudly defend the practice on the grounds that media owners exploit them by offering meagre salaries and poor working conditions. They say it covers their costs because media managers do not reimburse them for work-related expenses such as the cost of travel to news assignments and mobile phones for filing stories.
But media ethicists and watchdog organisations strongly denounce the brown envelope practice as a form of corruption. They say accepting gifts is likely to influence journalists and impair their ability to cover news.
In Tanzania, where I work, several surveys in recent years have established that the majority of journalists here do pocket money and other gifts offered by sources.
According to the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), a non-statutory watchdog organisation, over 60 percent of journalists in Tanzania are freelance, and therefore more susceptible to bribe taking. MCT says media owners avoid offering permanent employment to minimise costs. But even where journalists are employed, the low salaries encourage them to top up with brown envelopes.
A Baseline Survey on Freelance Journalists in Tanzania carried out in 2010 shows freelance income is below the national average monthly income, which is 125,000 shillings ($80). A freelance article earns between $1.94 and $3.20. Overall, pay in professions such as medicine, law and engineering is five times higher than in journalism.
In Tanzania, journalists are often paid what is known in the national language of Kiswahili as "mshiko", or a sitting allowance, for attending certain press conferences on the understanding they write something favourable.
It is not just Tanzania. Experts in mass communications say media corruption has become a common phenomenon throughout Africa. The practice of giving bribes to journalists even has its own name in some countries - "soli" in Ghana and "gombo" in Cameroon.
Professor Terje Skjerdal at Addis Ababa University, who has researched the subject in Tanzania, says brown envelopes are concealed as per diem expenses or travel money, but in fact they include a surplus rate, which the reporter can pocket for his personal use. In his study Brown Envelope Journalism, 63 percent of journalists admitted taking bribes in the form of brown envelopes.
Skjerdal says the practice “denotes an informal contract between the source and the reporter whereby both parties have certain obligations”. The envelope is intended to influence the journalist’s decisions about how to cover the news, but its impact can be wider.
“There are examples of organised brown envelope activity within organisations where reporters are expected to systematically share the allowance with other persons in the newsroom (editors) who are exempt from going out and receiving such gifts,” Skejerdal said.
Politicians, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and public relations firms pay bribes to get their stories published or aired if they have established a ‘good’ relationship with reporters, media experts said.
According to the State of the Media report 2010, published by MCT, print and electronic media play a pivotal role in influencing the democratic process. Candidates for the presidency, parliament and councils rely on media support for their success. MCT states in its code of ethics that a journalist, editor or media manager "shall ensure that neither him nor her, nor any of the employees take gifts or bribes in cash or kind in the course of duty or off duty”.
But Denis Mpagaze, an assistant lecturer at St. Augustine University of Tanzania, said in a recent study Corruption in the media: Perceptions of Tanzanian Journalists in 2011 that it has reached the point where a journalist would rather ‘kill’ a story by declining to publish it if he is not assured of receiving his share of a bribe.
Taking or giving bribes of any form is a criminal offence in Tanzania. Several journalists have landed in court over alleged corruption. In 2008, the editor of Family Mirror newspaper in Dar es Salaam, Zephania Musendo, was charged and sentenced to five years in prison for soliciting bribes.
A seasoned journalist and TV talk show host in Tanzania, Makwaia wa Kuhenga, says corruption in the media is a reflection of moral decay in society, and he urges young journalists to resist the temptation. Issa Mtuwa, who teaches at the Institute of Journalism and Mass Communications in Dar es Salaam, thinks a personal commitment to moral and ethical principles is crucial if a journalist is to be independent.
Yet journalists in Tanzania face an additional challenge. The constitution does not expressly guarantee freedom of expression or freedom of the press, leaving journalism vulnerable to repressive government action.
The country has a vigorous media - 47 FM radio stations, 537 registered newspapers, both privately owned and government owned, and 12 television stations. Some media moguls have ties to powerful politicians in the ruling party, others are entirely independent. But they can all face the rough hand of the state. The editor of the independent daily paper Mwananchi, for example, was summoned in 2010 by Tanzania’s director of information services to explain why the newspaper should not be closed for what government officials described as “bad coverage” of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party.
Brown envelope journalism and the spectre of government censorship have a chilling effect on a free and independent media. The price paid is a healthy democracy.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist working on freelance basis for Thomson Reuters Foundation (AlertNet Climate & Trustlaw). He also works with Bistandsaktuelt, a Norwegian newspaper on aid and international development. He has worked in Tanzania’s mainstream media including The Express and The Guardian newspapers for over five years. He has not taken bribes.