Two weeks ago, the nation woke up to the news that journalists had been given K50 000 for attending a meeting with President Peter Mutharika. Some journalists did not see anything wrong with Mutharika’s ‘monetary gift’. Given the high level of poverty among Malawian journalists who demand allowances for stories or workshops they are assigned to cover, this was normal. Undoubtedly, they were happy that the president alleviated their poverty.
Thanks to enlightened journalists who realised that this was strange, unethical and constituted bribery. They returned the money while others donated to a worthwhile cause. They are a beacon of hope of ethical journalists. Journalists worthy of their name, those who take journalism as a calling (not a job) should always resist bribes often disguised as gifts. Journalists who accept bribes are not taken seriously and cannot convince society when they write about those involved in bribery when they also accept bribes.
Certainly, the president had a motive behind giving journalists the money. The implied aim is for journalists to write favourable stories about him and his government. The risk of accepting bribes or gifts is obvious: professional standards are compromised. And this is a threat to professional journalism. One of the pillars of journalism ethics is to act independently. They are accountable to their readers and not be used or influenced by individuals or political parties. It is difficult to report or write objectively and remain impartial observers if they accept gifts. Hence, journalists should refuse gifts, favours, free travel, and special treatment to avoid compromising journalistic integrity.
This sounds bizarre, if not impossible, for many journalists. In fact, it is laughable. Gifts and freebies undermine accuracy, fairness and independence. The value of journalists in the eyes of the public diminishes. The journalists are reduced to robots who are manipulated by sources with money. Sources use such weak journalists to achieve personal ends.
Poor pay or working conditions should not be used as an excuse to accept bribes. While it is proverbial that few media organisations pay well, journalists should be looking for alternative sources of income to augment their meagre salaries.
Moreover, a good salary is a function of several factors such as academic qualification, experience and the ability of a particular media organisation to pay. A journalist with a diploma cannot get the same salary as a degree holder. Media organisations also have their own salary scales which spell out different pay levels for different ranks. It is incumbent upon journalists to negotiate for better working conditions or shop around for media organisations that pay well. Otherwise they are free to vote with their feet.
Thus, journalists should preserve the profession and resist the temptation to accept gifts as means to make ends meet. Some media houses have a policy of what or how much journalists can accept as a gift. Anything above the prescribed limit is supposed to be declared to the editor or management.
It is unfortunate that Media Council of Malawi (MCM), which is the custodian of media ethics and accountability in Malawi has chosen to remain silent on the matter. It should have been the first to advise the President that giving gifts to journalists is a threat to media ethics and can compromise the way they write stories. It is not public relations. By remaining silent, the council has condoned Mutharika’s action and has sent the wrong message not only to journalists, but to the public.
The bribe has not helped Mutharika’s cause. It has only succeeded in tarnishing his image not only in the eyes of Malawians, but the donor community who may not trust or take him seriously on his fight against corruption.