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09/23/2010

Cash for coverage: Malawian media ethics

Underpaid journalists in Malawi debate the ethics of accepting envelopes of cash at press conferences. Photo by Andrea Lynett. 

By Andrea Lynett 

At the closing of a three-day workshop about climate change reporting held in Blantyre, Malawi, organizers say final remarks to an audience of about 250 journalists. Soon after, the guests rise to leave.

With heavy eyes and empty pockets, the reporters gather their notepads and pens—provided by the NGO hosting the event—and file out of the banquet hall. As they leave, organizers discretely pass each of them a brown envelope, a “gift” most journalists have come to expect, before parting ways.

In the envelope is a stack of kwachas, Malawi’s local currency.

In Canada, it’s often referred to as “chequebook journalism.” In Ghana, they call it “soli,” short for solidarity. Here in Malawi, the euphemism used is “allowance.” It’s not outright bribery, but rather a little something to cover the cost of transportation and cell phone credit.

It’s a practice that threatens the independence of the press in Malawi and compromises journalists’ ethics across the country. But it's often the only way journalists working in resource-strapped newsrooms can get to stories, and, perhaps more crucially, supplement paltry salaries and feed their families.

“The biggest challenge we face here is that of accepting [money]," says Jika Nkolokosa, acting executive director at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ). He insists the role of a journalist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” not to accept envelopes of cash from sources.

A seasoned professional with over 40 years experience, Nkolokosa explains that the expectation young journalists have of being paid after press conferences is new and one that he has trouble comprehending. He wonders how it’s possible to be completely ethical when one accepts money for a story.

The press watchdog Media Council of Malawi clearly states in their code of ethics, “a journalist shall not offer, demand or accept payment in order to include or exclude material on a story he/she is writing.” In most Canadian newsrooms, a zero tolerance policy is enforced, barring journalists from accepting cash. Yet most news editors and media managers in Malawi turn a blind eye to the widely accepted practice.

Despite being commonplace, accepting allowances remains contentious among journalists here. I found that at my Blantyre media house, Capital FM, reporters were clearly split on the issue. I decided to invite Nkolokosa in to talk about the practice.

As he says some introductory remarks, most reporters recline in their busted chairs and casually flip through their code of ethics handout. Nkolokosa emphasizes the importance of producing stories that are accurate, fair and balanced and reporters seems only tenuously engaged. 

Everything is under control until Nkolokosa says, “it’s not for you to start playing public relations officer for whomever out there—you are a news house and you are out there to dig.”

To my surprise, the tame discussion quickly turns into a debate. One of Capital’s younger, more impressionable journalists, Margaret Mvura, challenges his “old school” opinion. What’s so wrong with accepting money for transport and food from event organizers, she wants to know, if the journalist has more than one mouth to feed, bills to pay and rent to cover? Most journalists in Malawi earn a monthly salary of 20,000 kwachas per month, which amounts to about $145 CAD.

With a husky laugh, Nkolokosa replies, “the salary I get today is not enough for get me from one week to the next, so never mind what I was getting then,” referring to his years working as a reporter—when journalists did not receive allowances after press conferences and paychecks were smaller. “Most of us live from hand to mouth,” he adds, “but that’s no reason why I should join the troupe of reporters at MIJ, go to every function and collect payment for a story.”

Voices erupt from every corner of the room. The reporters fight to get their opinions across to a man whom they believe is from a starkly different news era. Most suspect he’s never faced the lack of resources and poor wages all too common at media organizations today.

The one-hour discussion turned into a three-hour-long debate, and by the end the question still loomed, unanswered: should journalists accept elusive brown envelopes full of cash if it means adding a few extra kwachas to their monthly salaries?

If they did, would you blame them?

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