“I would accept a bottle of whisky from anybody because I would still feel free to criticise them”–Khushwant Singh
The former editor of The Hindustan Times I am quoting above continued to say, “But I would not accept a case (12 bottles) of whisky because, I am afraid, that might influence the way I do my job.”
I must admit the past week has been terrible for Malawi journalism. It is not every day that journalists are the subject of the story; they are always “tellers of tales”, as some young colleague of mine would have it.
But this week journalists made headlines for all the wrong reasons. It was all courtesy of the ‘white envelopes’ that the hundred of us were tricked into accepting at SanjikaPalace.
I am using the term ‘tricked’ advisedly. You see, when it pleased President Peter Mutharika to have an ‘interface’ (that never was because of the overzealousness of Master of Ceremonies Timpunza Mwansambo) with journalists Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa told us to collect a folder that contained the President’s vision of press freedom in Malawi.
It turned out that, unlike the eccentric departed big brother of his, Peter does not see things in technicolour. You see, Peter’s ‘vision’, according to the folder my good friend Kondwani directed us to, turned out to be a blank notepad embossed with the presidential insignia, a personalised Peter Mutharika pen (which, I must say, my son Raymond loves lots) and the clincher – a white envelope containing a wad of bank notes that amounted to K50,000!
What a vision! Blank, colourless and reeking of blood money!
Clever crooks, Mr. President, use brown envelopes! Hah! Hah!
But, seriously, I am still scratching my head why my good friend, Kondwani, decided to be parsimonious with the truth. If he wanted to say anything about the mysterious ‘folder’, he should have been frank with what it contained.
Look now, the minister has only succeeded in exposing his boss to undeserved ridicule that his is but a blank vision for not only press freedom but for just about everything.
Before we proceed, like Khushwant Singh agonised above, how much “might influence the way I do my job” for a Malawian journalist? K50,000? We cannot be that cheap! That is below US $100 even for our depreciating kwacha for crying out loud!
By the way, I must add that this treatise, irreverent as it may sound, is in no way trying to justify how most of us handled ourselves during that ill-fated night. Trust me, quite a few of us agonised over how to deal with those odd ‘white envelopes’. Quite a few of us, trust me, considered returning them to source but we thought that that gesture could have been viewed as disrespectful.
With hindsight, however, I guess we should all have behaved like the heroic George Kasakula who never thought twice but said, “I don’t deserve this; please have it back!”
Some of us went ahead to make some feeble gestures of donating the ‘blood money’ to this charitable cause or the other.
But I know we should be ashamed of ourselves. We should have, like good ol’ diarist George, spoken truth to power there and then, and said, “We don’t deserve to be paid just for dining and wining and dancing with the President!”
I know, as one wise man said, “Trust is like virginity – you only lose it once”! But, on behalf of my colleagues – who let our guard down, I apologise unreservedly for letting down the public that trusts us unreservedly. Without attempting to be an ‘intellectual Houdini’, I beseech you that we were tricked and innocently acted in good faith.
Having said that, I hope – unfortunate as it truly was – the Tuesday faux pas aught to offer lessons for both the always-arrogant Executive and the over-rated Fourth Estate.
When researching for this piece, a great friend of mine directed me to a must-read piece of literature in The News Manual under the theme: “Pressures on Journalists”.
So let us honestly interrogate the infamous K50,000 ‘white envelopes’. Did they constitute ‘bribes’, undeserved ‘gifts’ or, indeed, ‘blood money’?
The News Manual notes: “Journalists who are offered bribes will usually be offered them in private. This is so that the person attempting the bribe can later deny that it ever happened.”
Now here we were, the 100-odd us, being offered K50,000s together live on national television. That must have been the most stupid way of bribing people.
The same journal, however, notes that, “Journalists face pressure from a variety of sources, all trying to make the journalist behave in a way which is not the way the journalist would choose.”
These pressures include employers, as businesspeople, trying to break even by being cosy with big advertisers and, of course, government that always want to look good in the media…and governments happen to be the biggest advertisers in most of the developing world.
Notes the manual: “Advertisers can also bring pressure to bear upon (media) owners and editors. A big advertiser may threaten to stop advertising unless you run a news report of something good which the advertiser has just done; or, much worse, it may threaten to stop advertising unless you ignore a news event which is unfavourable to the advertiser.”
I know, under-recognised as we often are, journalists are still the “ears and eyes” of the society. Everyone run to the next journalist they can get when they want to run for office, settle scores with a rival, expose an unfaithful lover, gloat over a philanthropic act…what have you.
Has the Sanjika ‘bribe’ worked?
I guess not. It has actually boomeranged.
First, you do not ‘bribe’ a whole village of people together, as I noted above.
But, having said that, we are talking ‘blood money’ here; it is money paid to a ‘hit man’.
So, by giving journalists the undeserved money, government – or, was it State House? – was unwittingly trying to hire journalists to go and do a hatchet job, do its bidding in the court of public opinion.
With everything going south, I can understand how desperate this government is becoming by the day. It can do with some good press…at whatever cost!
And government did not have to admit to the scheme of things in as many words. Its scheme actually seemed to have worked. Some journalists associations actually ratcheted up to the scheme.
Look, the fact that some journalists’ association applauded Mutharika for the money given out to the hapless journalists because journalists “are not paid well” is probably one of the most asinine things I have ever heard of by an organisation whose sole purpose is to promote and protect the interests of journalists.
No doubt low salaries paid to journalists make them susceptible to such things as bribes. Who does not want to bring home the bacon, as it were?
But here journalists seem only to be looking at the remuneration side which is about employers and their employees.
Of course, for people to do their jobs well, there is no argument that they must be well compensated for for their skills and talents.
But it is one thing for journalists to applaud State House for giving them questionable “white envelopes”, fighting for better perks is another.
Either way you look at it, the Tuesday ‘white envelopes’ were a subtle bribe.
Did it work? That is the moot point; you, the muckraking community – which, by the way, includes President Mutharika himself (the confessed fan of the Sunday columns), are the best judges.
But if, for some unbelievable reason, the majority of journalists are okay with these bribes, then I would not want to be part of that despicable crowd.