The 2019 Tripartite Elections are getting closer and the real picture can be read from social media. The media platform has been abuzz with political comments in support and against particular political parties or leaders.
However, my concern is that those dominating the platform with political messages are reputable journalists from both public and private media.
It is indeed a play of words, irony, metaphors and hyperboles and outright drama how these go about drumming support for their political parties and candidates. One just cannot miss the war of political words that exists on social media these days.
Some contemporary friends I usually bang heads with argue that journalists should not hide their political affiliations. They say it is important for them to publicly declare their political allegiance because it has nothing to do with aiming for objectivity. They say knowing which side of the ‘ensemble’ a journalist is on will also help in identifying whether they are being biased in their work.
Therefore, they conclude, journalists who declare their allegiance to certain political parties are much more favourable than those that withhold this information since the public knows in advance which side a journalist leans. Nonetheless, these arguments could be made from an unethical journalistic perspective.
That a journalist too is a human being with a constitutional right to enjoy freedoms stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi cannot be argued against. However, the Constitution aside, every profession has its own way of doing things which must be adhered to all the time. The practice of journalism is mainly guided by media ethics. These help journalists when faced by ethical dilemmas.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) states that journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived and refuse gifts, favours, fees, free travel and special treatment and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality or may damage their credibility. Journalists are also required to be vigilant and courageous about holding those in power accountable.
Similarly, the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) posits that journalists shall not put themselves in situations or shall not associate with situations or professions that will bring a conflict of interest with their journalism profession. They must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public interest.
What I find, particularly worrying, is how a journalist with a clear political inclination would strive to be as objective as possible despite their political leaning. The Cambridge Dictionary defines objectivity as the quality of being able to make a decision or judgment in a fair way that is not influenced by personal feelings or beliefs. Would this particular journalist with a lucid political leaning be as fair as possible in covering news to do with a political candidate, whose ideologies and party manifesto he does not support? Would this journalist be courageous enough to carry out the watchdog role of holding those whose ideologies he backs accountable?
There is, therefore, a huge difference between reporting political news, expressing a political opinion and engaging in political activity that amounts to campaigning or lobbying as is the status quo on social media these days. Journalists should avoid falling prey to the latter even if the issue of political economy comes into focus. A personal bias on their part adds to conflict of interest which ultimately undermines the accuracy of their work and deters their credibility and integrity.