By Edris Kiggundu
Journalism ethics world over stipulate in BLACK and WHITE that journalists are not supposed to accept any gifts/money/facilitation from the people or organisations that they cover. The genuine fear is that this money/gifts will compromise the journalists who may not be able to deeply scrutinise the activities of these people/organisations.
To a large extent, I agree with this assertion. What defines people is their reputation and for journalists, the standards are higher. You cannot be the one pointing out how corrupt some public officials are,when you are stuffing your pockets with money left, right and centre. Your reputation will take a hit and few people, including the organisations/people that give you money, will take you seriously.
Yet having stated that, we must also place into context the situations under which some journalists accept money or gift from people and organisations they cover. Here, I am being a REALIST not IDEALIST. I once asked a respected senior journalist what, in his view, constituted a bribe from a news source?
After a long pause, the award-winning journalist told me that “you can know that a news source is trying to influence your coverage of a story through offers of money/gifts. It is an instinctive feeling… But there are people/organisations that could give you money out of appreciation for what you have done. That may not constitute bribery.” That was the view of
the senior journalist who us still active and occupies a very senior position in one of the most influential media houses in Uganda. He is also one of my mentors.
In countries like Uganda where you cannot easily divorce journalism practice from the social and political context, the issue of taking/receiving money from people/organisations must be looked at from many angles. Journalists become susceptible to bribes the moment their organisations neglect to facilitate them or pay them well. Many journalists who work for local FM stations in Uganda fall in this category. Some organisations cannot afford to facilitate their journalists to cover basic functions and organisations will step in. Some news organisations simply don’t make money (In the TV Broadcast industry only three TV stations in Uganda turn in a profit). In other cases proprietors of some of these media organisations are only business oriented with little regard for funding journalism. Thirdly, some stories in Uganda cannot be covered without some form of facilitation from the interested organisation/news source. They may involve huge expenses and risks. Take election coverage for instance.
Have I taken money/gifts on some occasions from people or organisations that I have covered? Yes I have. I even pointed this out in one of the posts here last week. I have attended workshops and trainings where per-diem is offered and I have pocketed it. I have also been “appreciated” several times for the stories I have covered by people I know. I have accepted facilitation and taken the ambiguous “transport refund” from FDC, NRM, UPC and DP, including food and refreshments at their functions. I have been facilitated by organisations within and outside Uganda in the course of my work. The UPDF once flew me and other senior journalists to cover floods in Soroti. They in addition “refunded our transport”. The US State Department facilitated me generously to attend a journalism fellowship at the University of Southern California in 2006. I came back with some good money which I never declared to my editors at the The Observer. The UK government/Reuters facilitated me to cover UK elections in 2015. One NGO met my bills for a trip to South Africa in 2011. The Turkish government funded me and other journalist for a benchmarking trip. I have also been handsomely paid as a facilitator by some organisations to train their people in media related matters. I have also given money/gifts to some of the news sources to obviously buy their favour ( I once gave fuel to an MP…a story for another day). This, many media analysts will tell you, is also wrong. One thing I have never done is to extort money/ put someone at gunpoint from a person/news source/organisation under the threat: If you do not give me this..I will do this..” I don’t think these facilitations/appreciations have influenced the way I cover these organisations and people. But this may not be for me to judge. Like I said, in countries like Uganda, the issue of what constitutes bribery is thorny and divides debate. I have seen editors chastise reporters for accepting 20K (a pittance really) as transport refund from an organisation, as they accept gifts and gift hampers worth millions from the same organisations. I have also seen some senior news managers fight juniors for foreign trips funded by private organisations, simply because there is some monetary benefit. I have also seen and witnessed situations were some editors have sat on stories simply because they hit out at people/organisations that regularly fund them. I have seen news organisations drop stories in exchange for adverts from an organisation which is being scrutinised (which I think is a direct form of bribery clothed as a business transaction). The managers are quick to retort that “these are the people who pay your salaries.” In short the practice of accepting money/gifts and other forms of facilitation by journalists and media organisations is rife in Uganda and elsewhere. This is not about to end. In my view individual journalists have the responsibility to exercise sound judgement in situations where they think they are being compromised by a news source/ organisation and act accordingly.