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Corruption Tarnishes Ugandan Journalists
From the Parkville Luminary
MASINDI, UGANDA—Is it wrong to steal bread to feed your starving family? Sadly, for many Ugandan journalists, this hypothetical conundrum is all too real. If you are not making enough as a radio reporter to feed yourself or your family, is it morally acceptable to receive a bribe from a greasy politician demanding favorable coverage?
Whether it’s morally correct or not, the practice of accepting bribes and taking brown envelopes stuffed with “facilitation” (transportation) money is commonplace among Uganda’s journalists.
I administered an unscientific survey in three different districts of Uganda during the last month, and asked 52 radio announcers and reporters who attended my peace journalism workshops about corruption in the journalism profession. When asked if they’d ever accepted a bribe, 56 percent said yes. The 28 “journalists” who took bribes said they had accepted them five times or less (18 respondents), 6-10 times (5), and more than 10 times (5). Who is bribing Uganda’s journalists? Not surprisingly, political candidates are by far the most common offenders. The survey indicated that businessmen, government officials, and political parties also regularly bribe reporters and announcers either for favorable coverage, or to kill an unflattering story.
Interestingly, the journalists’ response to a question about “facilitation” revealed a great deal about their mind set. “Facilitation” is a word used here to denote money given to journalists by newsmakers so that the journalists can pay to take a taxi or boda boda (motorbike) to cover an event. A disclaimer: radio stations here often don’t give reporters transportation money, leaving the journalists a difficult choice about whether to accept transport cash from news sources. 63% of journalists surveyed believe that facilitation is not bribery. This belief exists despite that fact that, during my workshops, we discuss the definition of bribery—giving/receiving something of value (transport money) in an attempt to curry influence (favorable press coverage).
The reporters and announcers were also asked to evaluate the overall level of corruption on a scale of 1-5 (1=least corrupt; 5=most corrupt) among journalists in their region. The average was in the middle, but the most frequently occurring responses were “not corrupt” (11) and, on the other end of the scale, “completely corrupt” (19). I would rate the corruption among journalists as a 4 or 5.
The survey results are buttressed by regular media reports of journalism corruption cases in Uganda. Two journalists are in jail after attempting to extort 40-million shillings ($17,777) in November from the head of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation. A few days before, officials foiled a 50-million shilling ($22,222) extortion scheme cooked up by two journalists and a lawyer that targeted the Public Works department. (Daily Monitor, 11-10-2010). At a political party meeting in September, brazen journalists “scribbled the names of 47 colleagues” who were demanding money and submitted them to the political party’s secretary. The secretary said the reporters “pursued me to my car, and I gave them 4-million shillings ($1,777) in an envelope because I knew the next thing they were going to do would be to start writing bad stories about me.” (Daily Monitor, 9-13-2010).
Not to make excuses for the journalists, but one could logically argue that rampant corruption among journalists merely reflects epidemic corruption in Ugandan society. Transparency International’s 2010 corruption index rates Uganda 127th out of 178 countries listed. (1 is best; 178th worst).
Regardless of the excuses, corruption among journalists corrodes the already low opinion the public here has of the profession, making it nearly impossible for reporters to be taken seriously. Corruption also complicates my job as a trainer in professional journalism. Can I seriously expect reporters to balance their stories and treat all political parties fairly if the reporters are receiving brown envelopes of money under the table from politicians in exchange for favorable coverage?
The headline of a recent newspaper op-ed piece here in Uganda says it all: “The brown envelope has bastardized journalism”. If Ugandan journalists are serious about professionalism and credibility, the brown envelopes must disappear.