The cause of press freedom, vital to building democracy in Africa, is being damaged by journalists who accept payment from their sources for covering the news. AllAfrica guest columnist Faten Aggad discusses the problem.
What is the job of a journalist? And how is he or she different from a public relations officer? A journalist by definition is primarily responsible for the gathering and dissemination of news and information. A public relations officer, conversely, is a person who is remunerated in exchange for publicising a client's event.
The distinction seems clear, or so I thought until I worked in a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, I found the distinction between journalism and public relations blurs: column inches must be paid for by the organisers.
In the Republic of the Congo, I was told by the organisers of a civil society workshop that they were struggling to raise funds to pay journalists to cover their event. And the amounts were not insignificant, mind you. They ranged from US$30 to US$50 per journalist, which, for a poorly resourced organisation was difficult to find. Every journalist expected to be paid, with extras demanded for any camera crew.
I later found out that this pay-for-stories practice is widely accepted in the journalism profession in Senegal, Cameroon, Mali and Gabon, among other countries. I understand it happens in Anglophone Africa too, but my own experience of its pervasiveness is limited to French-speaking countries.
For those who don't think this odd, these are full-time employed journalists already paid a salary by their media houses. Payments for covering particular events are in addition to their monthly pay checks.
Attempting to understand this unusual practice, I speculated that there may be a political angle, with the system designed to discourage smaller non-governmental organisations from forcing their issues onto the national agenda, especially where many news agencies are state-owned.
But in Brazzaville, even an "independent" media house owned by an opposition leader expected its kickback. A political official in Cameroon confirmed that it is not about who owns a media house; paying journalists for PR is standard practice that is now so common that its rationale is no longer questioned, and organisations cough up for coverage regardless of the cost.
Journalists defend the practice by saying their salaries are low and they need to make ends meet, knowing only too well that the pay-for-publicity industry is alive and well, and in no danger of extinction.
I argued in conversations with those tied into this system that that if organisations wanting coverage refused to pay, journalists who refused to cover stories would damage their own interests, since it was their ability to produce stories that guaranteed their employment. Everyone thought I was from a different planet.
While payment for coverage may have become accepted, it is still unethical and unsound.
It discourages smaller, less well-resourced organisations from gaining media space and thus airing their issues in public. Furthermore, it is biased towards richer organisations, whose concerns may be different from those expressed by smaller groups. And many groups say they are fighting against corruption and bad governance, yet perpetuate the practice.
But most important of all, it is in conflict with the central duty of a journalist: to report newsworthy information, regardless of the wealth or status of the person propagating it, or whether the reporter pockets a backhander.
Financial considerations are a weak excuse. Those who take payment are not the only poor journalists in Africa – colleagues in other countries are not well paid either. But journalists who do not take payments understand that their survival in the profession depends on how well they report, and how often they are published.
As Africa seeks to introduce reforms by building partnerships between different social forces, the media has a vital role to play. Press freedom is intrinsic to political reform and respect for the rule of law. But there will be little respect, or public support, for a journalist who demands money to publicise someone else's cause.
Organisations with something to say should make more use of opinion columns to put their causes across in their own words, and refuse to pay for coverage. Even if coverage suffers in the short term, this invidious practice will die if enough organisations refuse to pay.
Faten Aggad is a researcher on the Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, in Johannesburg, South Africa.