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The scourge of corruption in the newsroom

Brown envelope journalism

Last week I had a shocking encounter with what is so wrong with our society in general and the profession of journalism in particular.

I received a WhatsApp message from a senior journalist (name withheld) at a renowned local media organisation who wished to suggest a guest from a local bank (name withheld) on the In Conversation with Trevor (ICWT) programme. I immediately sensed something was not right.

I told him I found it strange that a journalist would do this and his response was: “I have an advertising agency that I run. As a consultant, I suggested to the bank that featuring on ICWT would spur the financial institutions rebranding exercise.”

Just like I suspected something was not right. My response was that this was a conflict of interest and I was shocked he did not realise this. “I am trying to be as truthful as possible, Boss,” was his response.

I am grateful to him that he was truthful, for his example has given me a hook to address something that is so rampant in our industry. His truthfulness does not, however, exonerate him from this serious conflict of interest. How does a journalist in the newsroom own an advertising agency that provides services to advertisers who might one day be in the news? Does he influence his client’s placement of advertisements? Is his employer aware and comfortable with this? Is the bank aware of this conflict of interest?

Brown-envelope journalism has, unfortunately, become rampant in most newsrooms. This is corruption which demands that companies and individuals pay for stories to be either published or to be killed. Instead of employing professional public relations practitioners, companies pay to have their events and brands covered by media organisations. Criminals pay to have their crimes kept away from the public eye or swept under the carpet. And these are the same journalists who see themselves as activists for the opposition or the ruling party in the newsroom.

Zimbabwe still has some fine journalists whose names are being tarnished by the bad apples practising chequebook journalism. I gather the corrupt journalists have formed a cartel that coordinates the corrupt journalists' activities across media houses. If one of them demands that “a client” must pay to have a story go unpublished, the cartel spreads the word to reporters in all newsrooms to ensure the “client” does not get away without paying by switching newsrooms. The loot is then shared.

Sadly, the unintended consequence of this is that some corrupt people use the allegations of corruption in the newsroom as a way of stopping clean journalists from publishing genuine stories about them. It is thus incumbent upon all journalists to stop brown-envelope journalism.

Members of the public must stop paying journalists to get publicity or to have their stories killed. Brown-envelope journalism is corruption in the newsroom and the police must treat it as such.

Low salaries are no defence for the debasing of this otherwise very noble profession. Economic hardships have never been a reason to condone crime.

Every society gets the journalists it deserves. Corruption has become a subculture in Zimbabwe. Most politicians are corrupt, so are some bankers, doctors, lawyers, the police etc. Words such as values, principles and ethics have become anathema to many Zimbabweans. People break traffic regulations with impunity. We pay bribes at the drop of a hat.

Journalism, as the Fourth Estate, has a huge responsibility in building a good society. How can we stop corruption and all manner of deviance and malfeasance if the conduct of journalists stinks to high heaven?  Who will guard the guards if journalists, lawyers and judges are all corrupt?

At AMH we are determined to stop brown envelope/chequebook journalism. This is precisely why we have an Independent Public Ombudsman, namely retired judge Justice Moses Chinhengo, and the Independent Editorial Advisory Board chaired by respected statesman Muchadeyi Masunda.

We invite members of the public to help us stop this corruption by approaching these structures with concrete evidence. Don’t pay our journalists. Instead, report them to the police or to the structures we have created and we will name and shame them.

Brown-envelope journalists lose respect from people who pay them and diminish the standing of an entire profession.

The remaining professional journalists have a responsibility to reclaim their public standing from these crooks in our newsrooms. The public has a huge role in refusing to play a role in compromising the Fourth Estate.

  • Trevor Ncube is chairperson of Alpha Media Holdings

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