opinionBy Nathan N. Mulbah
A painstaking and incisive observation of the media landscape of Liberia will reveal that there is a phenomenal cross carpeting of, trained, experienced and professional journalists from mainstream journalism to public and industrial relations undertakings. There are certainly many reasons underpinning this development which has virtually left a vacuum in the practice of journalism in this country.
Besides, some very well placed and respected Liberian journalists find nothing wrong in working as a mainstream journalist on the one hand while doubling as public relations consultant for government and private firms on the other. Whether this tendency calls into question issues of double standard or conflict of interest requires further examination.
However, for reasons yet to be explained, many media executives, managers and editors do not like critical thinkers make any reference to this malaise that now pervades our media landscape. And sometimes, if this debate is proffered, some editors out rightly refuse to have it aired or printed in their media outlets. But in this age of free speech, it is only germane to keep discussing these issues as a way of remedying the situation.
At the risk of being called names and punch by journalists with alternative views to this write-up, this writer admits that the performance of our print and electronic media leaves much to be desired and sometimes, is nothing to write home about. In order to right this wrong and improve on the quality of media content delivery while at the same time nurturing our bourgeoning democracy, reasons responsible for this professional miscarriage must be identified and solutions put in vogue to avert any untoward development in the journalism profession on these shores.
While it is true that media scholars and observers have attributed the poor performance of media practitioners to lack of deep education and training in the area of journalism and related supportive field of studies, it is also an open secret that trained and experienced journalists have traversed in their numbers from professional mainstream traditional journalism to Public Relations (PR) to seek Greener Pasture since journalism can no longer put bread on their table least to talk about keeping body and soul together.
Reasons for Switch to PR
Random samplings of views of journalists who have crossed over from mainstream journalism to public relations practice suggest that the prime causality for this increasing professional migration is the want for better remuneration. What this portends is that, journalists are not well paid by publishers, media managers and owners of media outlets. The effect of this poor remuneration regime at most media outlets is certainly the driving force behind this rapid traversing of journalists to public relations though there are also other factors that lay beneath the surface. No matter the cause of this switching over, the fact remains that, this has got a crippling effect on the practice of journalism here.
To assuage this phenomenal cross carpeting of journalists from the journalism profession to the realm of public relations, much need to be done by media managers, media support groups and the Press Union of Liberia.
Press Union Intervention (s)
The recent Press Union of Liberia (PUL) 48th anniversary held in Robertsport City, Grand Cape Mount County provided yet a fecund ground for the discussion of media practitioners' welfare. As the umbrella organization of the media in Liberia, the PUL held the anniversary under the theme: "Social Dialogue: Sharpening the Future of Journalism in Liberia." At that conference, issues of better wage and good working conditions for journalists were emphasized and in fact became the core issues that dominated the entire retreat.
The PULhas always intervened in matters concerning underpayment of journalists and poor working condition of media. The Union often intervenes whenever there was remuneration imbroglio between journalists and their employers. To what extent these interventions have helped to salvage this menace is yet to be seen.
Article 15 Section 6 of the PUL Revised Constitution and By-Laws states that "the duties of the Welfare Committee shall be as follows:(a) Monitor the general working conditions of members of the Union and make recommendations on such things like salaries, retirement schemes, insurance and other benefits offered by the media employers as stipulated in a duly executed collective bargaining Agreement between the Union and such employers.
(b)Put in place an effective health and welfare scheme for members of the Union. Bluntly put, yours truly have never seen a journalists working with the private media that have shown evidence of receipt of retirement benefits or insurance package, neither have we seen a robust health and welfare scheme for media fellows practicing here.
The PUL may have tried in a myriad of way to ensure that its members thrive well as they continue to be watchdog of the society. Apparently, the Union's effort has not yielded the needed results and scores of journalists work in appalling conditions with very low wage, no job security, no insurance and a bleak future awaits many pen pushers and masters of the microphone. One does not have to look too hard to see a long list of aging journalists living miserably after many years of informing the nation.
Many fellows of the Fourth Estate of the political realm, who have toiled in many ways to ensure that the good people of Liberia are informed on regularly basis of developments unfolding across Liberia and the rest of the world while at the same time nurturing democracy on these shores, have live and die as a pauper. Yes, for the love of the profession, they work in poor working condition, work on low salary and die without a dime left in the bank.
Journalists dyeing as a pauper is fast becoming a thing of the past as more and more journalists now sees it expedient to cross over to public relations where they make ends meet. Remember that story of veteran journalist Jeff Mutada and many before him and after him. At least, in Jeff's case, it was the then Press Secretary, Cyrus Badio, who had to take a package from Madame President to help the old man on his dying bed. Many of his professional colleagues suffer similar tragedy in obscurities till death takes them to the 'Great Beyond'.
How many times have you not heard the plight of a journalist in dire need of one kind of support or the other? But what do you expect when a Senior Editor in this town who makes above US$200.00 must be thankful every day and night even though they work 24/7. Some foreign correspondents and stringers who work around the clock being on top of the news can make a different in some instances. But they arejust few anyway.
As for reporters, the story is just too bad. They can be hired and dismissed at will. They are susceptible to anything as remuneration. In their world, there is nothing like 'severance benefits' or better working condition. The irony is, it is they who write stories highlighting the need for workers in other professions to be given their severance benefits. It is they who highlight the poor working conditions of others on their newsreel.
In the face of this appalling working condition and low wage intake, many journalists with the requisite skill, talent, education and experienced and of course is aging, is always tempted and prompted to look over the fence to seek greener pasture.
In the beginning, in their young and youthful exuberance, the profession becomes sweet in the absence of an established family but once reality sets in, the story becomes different and the need to leave the profession and find a better pay job becomes so pressing and ever compelling.
As a consequence of this development on the Liberian media landscape, we end up with the kind of press we get. Very often, editorial contents and journalists reports are often doctored to reflect the whims and caprices of the highest bidder. This disposition certainly smacks of unethical posturing. Any wonder why we get the kind of press we get.
It was Dr. Kwasi Ansu-Kyremeh, Professor of the School of Communication Studies, University Ghana, who said, "if journalists are unethical, it is because the rich and powerful who control the destiny of society operate without ethics. Indeed journalism is as good as the social, cultural, economic, and political conditions prevailing in the society in which it is practice".
Prof. Ansu-Kyremeh further observed that "where the prevailing ideology, as it pertains to national values and ideals articulated by the super-structure, is an epitome of mediocrity, as we continue to witness, that is the best journalism we can get until we alter it for the better".
By extension, until we improve the working condition of the Liberian media, we will continue to get the kind of press we have. If you check on the flip side, you will soon realize that most of the educated, trained and experienced journalists have jump over the fence to so-called better heights.
Cross Carpeting Galore
Albeit, there are media managers, editors and journalists who are still practicing the profession but double as public relations consultants for private firms and government agencies, there are a good chunk that have taken off their journalistic hats and openly parade themselves as public relations people. They must survive, they will tell you.
This phenomena cross carpeting has got a crippling effect on the practice of journalism in Liberia. A cursory glance at the list of journalists who have cross over to the world of public relations, will established that they are some of the best print and electronic journalists that this country can boast of.
Certainly, most of them are well trained, educated and experienced with sometimes 30 plus years of experienced in journalism. Leave they must to be able to provide for their family. Very often when they leave the void is filled by neophytes and youth with passion for the profession. Passion for the profession is good but training; education and experienced can add spice to the practice of the profession and give it the expected meaning and appreciation.
I must say thumbs up to the many young people now burning the flames of journalism here. But believe you me, it pains my heart when I listen to international wires and read international journals and hear and see the names of journalists with over 30 years of reporting still doing what they love best and we cannot do same here. By the year they perfect their arts and the superb nature and quality of their reportage speaks volumes of having a good wage regime that will encourage journalists to keep at put and observe the thin line between journalism and public relations.
Understandably, Liberia is transitioning from a state of war and is experimenting with democracy. Significant strives and inroads are been made in all quarters to ensure that the state of ships sails smoothly and does not rock nor sink. In the society mosaic, efforts are being made at all front to ensure that people who render services are better paid. Journalists too deserve attention.
As the Fourth Estate of the political realm, journalists report what is obtaining in the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. Journalists also report events unfolding all over the society. Without the journalists, the society will not know what is obtaining locally and internationally. They deserve some attention now and right now.
In the nurturing of democracy, journalist play very crucial role that should not in any way be overlooked. When the experienced journalists get disenchanted and traversed to public relations they certainly leave a void. When that void is filled by the young and inexperienced journalists, you get the kind of press you get. Over to you.