A wake up call for journalists

I pity Edgar Tsimane. The poor man had to skip his mother land in search of safety. He loves his family, his country but fears his government. Unfortunately his employers couldn’t guarantee his safety, when he needed it the most.

Faced with the most difficult choice in his career, whether to practise at home at risk of his personal security, the only alternative was to preempt his pursuers- the notorious Directorate on Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) and skip the country. Now this says a lot about the profession of journalism. It is the most risky yet the worst paying. Personal security and welfare issues are a luxury in this profession. Most people with a passion for writing say it is a calling. That is why they will endure the worst work conditions in the elusive search for that egalitarian society- an Utopia! Some end up with dysfunctional families. They can’t raise their children like normal parents. Others take solace in binge drinking. Some give in to immorality and corruptible behaviour, throwing caution to the wind along with the ethics and journalism values, that should at all times be worn like a priceless jewel around the neck.

And in the worst case scenario, some are killed execution-style or assassinated. It’s a phenomenon common to journalists all over the world. But in Africa the conditions can be extreme and brutal. Edgar had foresight. Rather than face the might of a blatantly media hostile government, which has publicly admitted its disgust for the private press (for which he is a member), he took flight to neighbouring South Africa pleading harassment, intimidation and persecution by the state for his journalistic work. Now, what surprises me in his letter to South Africa’s Home Affairs Department is his candid observation that his editors, who also double as his employers, were incapable of protecting him. At the first signs of danger, he had tried in vain to call one of his editors and when he finally succeeded with the deputy editor, he was told to go to sleep and discuss the matter in detail the next day at the office! How do you go to sleep and pretend everything is okay when you genuinely fear for your life? I think Tsimane’s peculiar circumstances will prick the consciences of many journalists, who perhaps have been taking their profession and security for granted. In the first instance, the publishers here have their Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and its Press Council.

In the same breath the editors have their Editors Forum. In these two is vested all power and authority in terms of editorial policy, financial control, administration and management of media houses. The reporters only do the bidding of the editors and publishers. Their conditions of work are sorry and pathetic. They have no job security. Others have no medical insurance. They don’t regard themselves as workers. In fact they don’t align themselves with the cause of the workers. That is why journalists do not observe Workers’ Day. And worst of all, journalists have no common fraternal association to protect their interests. Journalists are the worst abused victims, yet they are the first to raise alarm when the abuse happens outside their offices. Not a single journalist is willing to call this injustice to question, for fear of reprisals, in these harsh economic times. Are we hypocrites? I remember when one reporter wrote a letter complaining about what he perceived as misconduct by one of the editors. He promptly received a pretty jolting rejoinder: “Don’t come crawling to us when you are out of a job,” or something to that effect! And indeed very soon that reporter was out of a job.

It got me thinking, do these publishers connive at their gatherings? Do they move us up and about like pieces on a chess board or the president reshuffling his cabinet? Another publisher was overheard remarking to one of his senior managers who was leaving for greener pastures: “You did well for yourself otherwise you would have been mistaken for office furniture!” We all play along as if everything is fine, when deep down we are hurting. In developed democracies and industrialized countries that have a longer history of media industry than us, journalism is regarded as a noble profession. A reporter executes his duties diligently and gains the trust of the public he serves. Time and space is no object. He could be a reporter his entire life. But here, the editorial structure has been engineered to suit the interests of finance capital. Hardly do we have people join the profession at entry level of cub-reporter; no, the recruits join in as professional journalists and editors.

No longer do we hear of reporters, senior reporters, chief reporters, news-editors, sub-editors and editors. This structure has been perverted by so-called media activists to place their friends and cronies in positions of responsibility when they hardly have any comprehension of the task at hand. The traditional structure has been deliberately altered to placate broken friendships. And this happens at the expense of the profession. Some use so-called freelancers or correspondents for financial rewards. And these seemingly prolific scribes use the unsecured source of Internet to inundate the reading public with untested and unverified reports, which don’t even meet the basic values of the editorial charters of the newspapers that publish them! Yet they get published at the expense of real people issues! We see how assignments outside the country are reserved for a select few in management and how the hard beats into far-flung Botswana, which attract no per-diem, are exclusively reserved for our reporters! It is this attitude that has influenced corporate interests to invite reporters to their functions on the promise of “food and drinks,” and in extreme cases, influenced corporate interests to set up a Press Club for reporters! There is hardly any standing employment policy- never mind the requirement for a Degree in Mass Media or such fancy stuff during job interviews.

Some of these Degree holders can’t even write a proper sentence! Media outlets thrive on the exploitation of wet-behind the-ears school graduates and Interns, who hardly can tell the difference between a ruling party and government. These young ones are thrown into the deep-end, without any training at all. They are left to their devices, or in some cases, are the responsibility of the few experienced reporters that still remain, to train them at no remuneration or consideration from the publishers. This explains the mass exodus of accomplished journalists in recent years to take on roles of public relations officers in government, parastatals and private sector. It’s a dog-eat-dog media industry in which newspapers have been infiltrated by political and business interests intended to secure the status quo and protect class interests. It is hardly surprising therefore that the so-called media practitioners resist all attempts at joining a fraternal association, but instead promote their own selfish agenda at the expense of the profession. 

The Government and the Press

These two are mortal enemies. The golden rule is that the Press exists as the voice of the voiceless. While the ruling class insists on imposing its top-down approach to governance, the Press’ watchdog role makes it diametrically opposed to this system. Naturally, this pits the two on opposing ends. And therefore as the late Rampholo Molefhe- the journalists’ journalist, once remarked, one needs not manufacture conflict or controversy in one’s reportage, since it is inevitable. government bureaucracy is not only intended to safeguard the integrity of State information. It is primarily used as a means to deny journalists access to information. And without information, journalists resort to speculation and use of ‘reliable sources.’ Until a law on Freedom of Expression is passed, complete with a provision for the protection of journalists, whistleblowers and access to information, this conflict between the Press and the State will not go away. In fact, we see a concerted effort to muzzle journalists from the Executive arm of Government, which has promised legal assistance to public servants to sue journalists and their media houses! The coercion is intended to intimidate and cow reporters into self-censorship. News gathering is an onerous task. When cornered and demanded to account (a basic rule of good corporate governance), the ruling elite, its cohorts and agents demand ‘a questionnaire’ from journalists. If the questionnaire is ever responded to, it’s either after a month or two. In most cases the questionnaire is just a ploy to ‘kill the story.’ And if the journalist dares to publish the story without the ‘official version,’ he risks offending some statute, either on criminal defamation, sedition, libel or one of the antiquated colonial penal provisions, which were enacted to keep the native in his place. It’s axiomatic that after Independence, the new rulers were used to maintain the status quo. Renowned writer, Franz Fanon aptly describes this tendency in his book, ‘White Skin, Black Masks,’ in which he exposes the black man’s slave mentality as manifesting in his inferiority complex. Witness the many laws that prohibit the Press from performing its functions post-independence: the National Security Act, the Media Practitioners Act; the DISS Act, the DCEC Act and Secrecy laws, which continue to impose a heavy burden on journalists in the day-to-day execution of their work. Under these conditions, investigative journalists are bound to hit a brick wall in their exposés. The State has set a trap for them and the rest of the Intellectuals to hurry headlong to the many penitentiaries that litter the country. 

Way forward

There can be no doubt that the starting point is a conclave of journalists where they will agree on a common fraternal association to protect their welfare and safeguard their security. The recent upheavals occasioned by the State paranoia must jolt journalists into action. Remember the next target could be you! If my memory serves me well, BOJA (the defunct local journalists association) used to have a Legal Fund, which was administered by Disthwanelo, the local human rights association. This Fund enjoyed financial support from donor agencies as well as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ) to which BOJA was affiliated.

Mmegi would later set up Babegi Legal Fund, ostensibly to lend financial and legal support to journalists facing lawsuits. With such instruments in place the Media industry is predisposed to challenge some of these outdated laws in a court of law. Sadly, these two seem to have faded into oblivion, as newspapers and other media houses now rely on their own attorneys sometimes engaged by their insurance underwriters. BOJA lobbied for the enactment of a Freedom of Expression law, long before MISA and some of our pro-media politicians who are calling for a Freedom of Information Act came onboard. It was BOJA that was in the forefront, lobbying this government to ratify ILO Conventions to guarantee the freedom of association as well as to allow associations to unionise.

That was before BOFEPUSU came into being, when it was still Botswana Civil Servants Association (BCSA), then known as a ‘white collar’ association. It was the same BOJA that exerted pressure on this government to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And the same BOJA had its autonomous Press Club through which journalists fostered rapport with the public it served. The Press Club acted as a bulwark for self regulation, as journalists would peer-review each other’s work openly and transparently. This BOJA revived the Southern African Journalists Association (SAJA) and some of its members (Douglas Tsiako in particular) served in the executive of SAJA. And aware that finally it would have to become a workers’ union, BOJA engaged Motumise Attorneys to draft a constitution for a Journalists and Affiliated Media Workers Union.

Sadly, various recent attempts at reviving a mass organisation for journalists have failed because they were driven by selfish personal interests and desires for self glory. A careful assessment of the administration of President Ian Khama reveals the same hostile tendencies like all its predecessors. The only difference may be the magnitude of the hostility. Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae also unleashed the ferocity of the Immigration Act on journalists and were responsible for the deportation of many journalists and other elements perceived as national security threats.

Where Khama is openly hostile, his immediate predecessors made up for by keeping journalists in the loop through press conferences. Today the journalists need to up the stakes to defend their profession and keep the nation informed at all times, regardless of the threats, intimidation and wanton abandon with which they are exploited by their employers. Journalism by its nature has an inclination to a Leftist ideology, as it seeks the establishment of that egalitarian society, in which societies are no longer defined by class differences, but by mutual coexistence. Get up brothers and sisters, we can achieve what we must!   

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 15:20

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