“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround It.” ~ John Pilger
The story about President Peter Mutharika’s ‘white envelopes’ that contained MK50, 000 for Malawi journalists he was hosting at Sanjika state house a couple of weeks ago has faded. The country has moved on to other pertinent issues, Malawi is a country that thrives on crises and disorganisation. Look around and you will see.
That the ‘white envelopes’ story is fading away is definitely a relief for journalists involved. Journalists are always happy to report stories but they are never happy to be the story themselves. I understand some journalists returned the money to its source while others donated it to various charities and causes. I do not know what I would have done with the money if I were in their position, so I will not judge any of them.
Yet, I believe the media would have taken this opportunity to ask hard questions of themselves and their relationship with the elites and the powerful; who are also often subjects and sources of news. The source and journalist relationship is very important insofar as understanding the type of information that the news media feed us on daily basis, hourly basis and even every 30 minutes, for broadcasters is concerned. If the society is concerned with politician’s sources of funding and its possible conflict of interest, journalists also find themselves in the same position with their sources of information.
News media has this self-appointed role of the “fourth branch of government”. The executive and legislature derive their mandate from the electorate while judiciary is stipulated for in the republican constitutions – media is not, though freedom of the press is guaranteed. This, to me, suggests that the media are better understood as part of the civil society organisations (CSOs) than the earlier.
This is why Jeff Jarvis, American journalist and professor of journalism, argued that journalists are not mere manufacturers of content, or indeed the first drafters of history; journalists are also in the business of arming the general public with the information that matter. It is important to acknowledge that journalism is a public service, a service whose end is an informed public. “journalism, true journalism, is a service to an informed society. It always has been,” added Jarvis.
Thus, journalists rightly find it newsworthy when influential members of the civil society are appointed to board memberships by the incumbency. The appointments may not be ‘big’ news but there is an implication of CSO members working for the very government they must monitor. Journalists rightly ask: how would members of the civil society stand up to government’s poor service delivery when the same members are sitting on boards entrusted with public service delivery?
It is for the similar reason that journalists pocketing money from the state president is a worrying development, for journalists and the general public alike. Like the civil society members, journalists have conflict of interest pocketing money from people they must report on. In the aftermath of the ‘white envelopes’ revelation, some journalists proudly argued that they could be bought for MK50, 000.
Perhaps. Nobody can categorically say how much is enough, it is relative. Yet, the symbolic gesture of receiving the money matters, it is daft to ignore this fact. Recent Journalists Union of Malawi (JUMA) study established that salaries for the majority of journalists in this country are well bellow the MK50, 000 the president distributed.
I am aware that those invited were senior journalists most of whom the JUMA report indicates have reasonable pay and remuneration. Yet, it is also true that a lot of senior journalists in Malawi have abandoned the profession for better-paid jobs, mostly picking up public relations positions with state, public and private institutions. Money is never enough and living conditions are tough in Malawi. All things considered, MK50, 000 is not a paltry sum even for senior journalists.
On this issue the local media have been too obsessed with themselves and have consequently failed to ask serious questions about the abuse of state resources, which the MK50, 000 ought to ignite. I do not recall the local media ever questioning why is it that it is always those in power that have money to handout? Perhaps it is only when folks are in power that they develop this kind of generosity to share what they have? We need a national discourse on this, and the media as agenda setters ought to take lead in this debate.
President Mutharika won elections only 6 months ago. Why did he not share “his vision” on Malawi journalism in his campaign manifesto? Would it not also be good for those returning and donating the MK50, 000 to ask these questions? Perhaps this never occurred to anyone because handouts from the incumbency have become ‘normal’ in this country? The irony about this is that those in power know fully well that they ought to explain the source of their income – monetary, material or otherwise.
This is why immediately after his 2009 electoral victory the late president, Bingu wa Mutharika promised to reveal DPP’s source campaign funding. He never kept his promise. Perhaps wa Mutharika realised quickly enough that he was being too progressive for Malawi. If that was his thinking, then he was right, nobody followed up wa Mutharika on his promise. Journalists have explained themselves on the damned MK50, 000 and the consequences of it are that the hard and necessary questions will never be answered.
- Jimmy Kainja is a lecturer at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, and a current affairs writer and blogger. Kainja’s write for Nyasa Times every Wednesday on social and political issues