Media is an integral part of a democratic society. Deepening of democratic culture relies on a vibrant media sector that facilitates access to information. Journalists play a crucial role of exposing corruption and abuse of public office. Malawi is experiencing an increase in research-based and investigative journalism. While this is good news, there is equally a growing concern on corruption within the media fraternity. This article intends to encourage open dialogue on the prevalence of corruption among journalists.
The concept of State capture, which denotes high level prevalence of corruption under the influence of powerful business and political elites, has not spared the media. Some senior managers and journalists in media houses have been captured by corrupt gangs.
At the peak of the State capture enquiry in South Africa, a secret witness told the Zondo commission that the State Security Agency bribed the media. The South Africa National Editors Forum demanded names of the ‘bribed’ journalists. The commission heard that R20 million was paid to the Africa News Agency. Its CEO, Vasantha Angamuthu, admitted accepting the money. She said the money was for journalists to report positively about then president Jacob Zuma and the country.
In Cameroon, corruption of journalists is equally rampant. Such media corruption is called gombo, a metaphor for various forms of kickbacks, freebies and rewards solicited by journalists and provided by various actors to journalists. The gombo culture of media corruption reveals journalists’ desire to meet personal needs combined with responsibilities to society. Gombo only confirms that journalists, too, live under a harsh environment of economic hardship.
Western countries, too, are not spared from the spell of corruption of journalists. In Germany, the automotive industry ‘bribes’ journalists so that they can write or air favourable opinions about the cars they make. Alex Voigt, a German writer, reveals the nature of corruption where automotive industries give out cars to journalists for ‘test-drive’ for over a year, and pay business class holiday trips for journalists and their families in 5-star hotels.
In Malawi, journalists have been named on the list of beneficiaries in some corruption cases. Malawians are apparently anxious to know the names of journalists that are allegedly captured and bribed by Zuneth Sattar. The motive behind such corruption of journalists may be known once full investigations are completed. However, the task to uncover, prosecute and convict the corrupt journalists may not be an easy one.
Corruption of journalists in Malawi also takes many forms. For example, editors may cause a story about corruption to be diluted, adulterated, or completely withdrawn. Journalists may also conceal certain details relating to a corruption scandal as a way of protecting certain corrupt cartels.
Corruption also happens when a media house decides to be silent on malpractices perpetrated by certain corporate firms because they are a source of income through adverts. It is common practice for journalists to produce positive stories about such companies. Some firms may even go an extra mile to give incentives to individual journalists.
Another common form of corruption happens when journalists align themselves to a particular political party or politically-influential individuals. This is a systemic form of media corruption since journalists fail to criticise or report the truth pertaining to the political group which has ‘bribed’ them.
Safeguarding media integrity is critical. The fight against corruption of the media cannot be delayed. This requires an honest soul-searching into the key drivers for media corruption. Internal factors include cost of living, economic conditions, and low remuneration for journalists.
External factors to consider include inappropriate behaviours of corporate firms, unfair competition for adverts, and all forms of corrupting political incentives. Investigative journalism should go an extra mile to also investigate and expose media sector corruption.