What you need to know:
- The same argument also assumes that poorly paid journalists cannot be expected to be objective and independent. It also implies that lowly paid people have weaker ethical standards than, for instance, our inordinately overpaid members of Parliament.
- Related to this is the reality that journalism is practised in context. If the entire political and social system of a country works through a murky system of give and take, it is likely to affect how journalism is practised.
The Daily Nation recently carried out a campaign against what is commonly known as “brown envelope” journalism.
The campaign demonstrated that the media in Kenya is reflexive and capable of self-examination.
Brown envelope journalism occurs when news sources or newsmakers transfer rewards to individual journalists with the intention of appealing to the local decision-making in exchange for positive or uncritical media coverage. Brown envelope" journalism has become synonymous with African journalism.
Nigerian journalists use the name “kola” to refer to cash handouts from news sources. So embedded is the practice that a few newspapers allow journalists to live off financial contributions from their sources as long as their “independence is not compromised”.
In Cameroon they use the label “gombo” while in Ghana the term “soli”, a shortened form of the word solidarity, is used.
In Anglophone West Africa, the probable cradle of brown envelope journalism, the more common term for the practice was “Item 13”, a reference to refreshments, freebies, or “cash refunds” at the end of an official event, understood to be the last item on the agenda. In Kenya, the terms chai, bahasha, or kitu are preferred.
Media scholars have sometimes drawn a link between poor pay and the proclivity to ask or seek bahasha, but such a line becomes difficult to defend when well paid journalists are involved.
The same argument also assumes that poorly paid journalists cannot be expected to be objective and independent. It also implies that lowly paid people have weaker ethical standards than, for instance, our inordinately overpaid members of Parliament.
Some analysts have argued that the code of ethics in most African countries works against the practice. Most of these ethical codes, directly appropriated from Western codes of ethics, are too idealistic and have only made worse the gap between ideal standards and actual journalistic practice.
As such, arguments have been made that we need a code of ethics that is African — Afriethics — to guide journalism and nurture journalistic practice that is specific and complimentary to core African values.
But again, are ethics context-specific or universal? Those arguing for the need of contextualising journalistic ethics argue that the acceptance or giving of a brown envelope does not necessary mean that a journalist will “sex up” a story.
Related to this is the reality that journalism is practised in context. If the entire political and social system of a country works through a murky system of give and take, it is likely to affect how journalism is practised.
My opinion is that the most common cause of brown envelope journalism is much deeper than commonly thought. Both journalists and newsmakers influence how power in society is configured.
The difference is how each does this. While most newsmakers and news sources wield political and sometimes economic power, those among them who wish to make the most of their political and social influence understand that journalists are possibly the only bridge (or barrier) to their aspirations.
Since many journalists have modest economic power, some find it irresistible to swap their power with the economically powerful.
Dr Omanga is the head of department, Publishing and Media Studies, at Moi University. [email protected]