Media Watch: Kenyan journalists still susceptible to bribery

Posted on October 12, 2011

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When people hear mention of corruption in reference to Kenya, most assume that it is with regard to the ‘graft’ that has characterised the Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki regimes in the country, or perhaps to the corruption that is endemic within the police force. These are forgivable reactions, with the Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing scandals within government having received a huge amount of press in recent years and Kenyan people well-used to paying bribes to crafty cops.

Yet what is less well known is that Kenyan journalists, the very people whom the public would expect to be engaged in holding corrupt politicians and public authorities to account, have been involved in some ‘eating’ of their own. Historically, “brown envelope”, or bribery-based, journalism has been common within the country, and there are those that claim that the practice has still not been fully abolished.

Indeed, Frank Ojiambo, former reporter and editor at both the Nation and the Standard and a well-known critic of journalistic corruption, told journalists at a Media Round Table project in Nairobi at the end of last year that corruption within journalism was in fact worse than that in the police force. “The police are nothing compared to the media,” he said, suggesting that while policemen on matatu beat only take a handful of shillings at a time, journalists were getting away with much higher amounts and also luxury gifts such as cars.

Peter Mwaura, a journalist who attended the event at which Ojiambo made his comments, believes that, in spite of protestations to the contrary, the practice of “brown envelope journalism” is still alive and well within Kenya today. Nation Media Group, which owns the Nation, Business Daily and East African among other media interests, was concerned enough that the practice was continuing towards the end of 2010 that they made an “integrity watch” announcement, referring to “widespread corruption within some newsrooms” and asking for information about violation of certain journalistic principles.

Tervil Okoko, chairman of Kenya Union of Journalists, says those that work in the Kenyan media are aware that the best stories are often placed lower in importance than the best paid ones. “I am the leader so I need to protect the interests of the organisation, but I must also speak the truth,” he says. “Corruption is a big problem in the media.” Okoko says it is easy to tell when stories have been written by politicians or businessmen, as the writing style is much different. “I know which story has been paid for. I can tell there is something wrong here. Someone has an agenda with that,” he says. This is corroborated by Moses Radoli, a freelancer who has experienced offers of bribes, suddenly sackings and even having to flee into Uganda in fear of his life. He says he continuously refused bribes but often heard from colleagues about senior politicians who ask journalists to write positive stories and will contact them if negative stories go to print.

Clearly, there is a lingering feeling within Kenyan journalism that unethical practices have not yet been stamped out, and this is in spite of the fact that it is clearly within the power of individual journalists to put an end to it. There are a number of theories as to why a brown envelope slid over a desk is still liable to impact upon accurate reporting of the news in Kenya. One is that journalists remain poorly paid within the country, and thus many are unable to resist the extra shillings that a planted or slanted story is likely to earn them. This is a theory put forward by Ojiambo, who notes that many journalists are forced to live off bribes in order to supplement their low incomes. Freelancers in Kenya, according to him, often have an average wage of just 5000 shillings (less than $50) a month, barely enough for food and rent. Researchers from Calvin College, Michigan, agreed with this analysis in 2006, claiming that, when interviewed, numerous journalists expressed real idealism with regard to their profession, and that financial necessities accounted for most journalistic corruption. The problem will only have been exacerbated by the collapse in value of the shilling.

Yet this theory, however relevant, does not explain why better-paid editors are also suspected of taking bribes. A young country with an equally young media culture, it is possible that the practice has taken hold because Kenyan journalists lack the legal protection and ethical training that is afforded to their counterparts in more developed journalistic cultures. Another possibility is that put forward by Radoli, who suggests that, for some journalists, striking deals and taking money from politicians in return for a favourable story can sometimes be in the interests of their own security. “When we talk about corruption, some of the fellows involved in corruption are so bad they are ready to kill to get what they want,” he says. Mwaura’s explanation is clearer cut. He argues that corruption within journalism is a result of “lack of probity, moral fibre, high principles and ethical behaviour”. Though the KUJ has a code of conduct for its members, and accepting gifts was prohibited under the second schedule of the Media Act of 2007, Mwaura believes current codes of conduct are not effective enough and that better training and regulation is needed to reduce the likelihood of bribery in journalism.

What is clear, however, is that this alleged pervasiveness of “brown envelope journalism” is incredibly damaging to the reputation of Kenya’s journalists. With professional standards cast into doubt, journalists risk losing authority and credibility in the eyes of readers. A journalist has a responsibility to remain independent and not be beholden to any vested interests, and the accepting of bribes in return for stories written or shelved in the interests of others is professional degradation of the highest form. Moreover, how can journalists honestly document and criticise alleged corruption within government if they are breaking rules and being corrupt in their own profession? In order to comment in a non-hypocritical way on corruption and misbehaviour elsewhere journalists, in Kenya and the rest of the world, must remain whiter-than-white in their own dealings. Ojiambo thinks that bribery in journalism can even have fatal consequences, with corruption resulting in the printing of stories that incite tribal hatred and the suppression of stories telling the truth about certain incidents or marginalisation within Kenya. “As long as people have an interest in conflict and can pay for it, conflict sensitive journalism will be hard to implement,” he says.

It is fair to say that, in some cases, journalists have been deliberately fingered as being corrupt in order to destroy their reputations or silence them. In 2008 Bernard Okebe was investigating corruption within the police force in Nyamira, in western Kenya. After being invited to the local station to discuss the allegations, he was led to a room where a large amount of money was spread on a table. After being ordered to count it at gunpoint, thus putting his prints on the notes, he was arrested and charged with attempted bribery. A 2.5-year legal battle followed, with Okebe as a result rendered unemployable and suffering a serious loss of earnings. He finally won this long court case in May of this year, with assistance from The Media Legal Defence Initiative.

Stories of journalists being falsely accused of corruption do not, however, diminish the importance of claims that bribery is still commonplace within the Kenyan media. Responsibility for monitoring and regulating the media in the country lies with the Media Council of Kenya, yet this council is formed solely from people who work within the industry. Anti-corruption campaigners like Frank Ojiambo have little faith in their abilities. “I don’t believe it will go far when the people that comprise it are themselves media people. I mean you don’t set a rat to catch a rat, you set a cat to catch a rat,” he says. Who that cat will be, and whether indeed such a cat will ever be found, remains a very real issue for Kenyan journalism.

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Posted in: Issues, Media