African Journalists Face the Corrupting Influence of ‘Brown Envelopes’

May 72012
  • Gathered in Tunis for World Press Freedom Day activies are (standing) Knight Fellow Joseph Warungu, Knight Fellow Sandra Crucianelli, Knight Challenge Winner Brenda Burrell, Knight Fellow Justin Arenstein, and (kneeling) Knight Fellow Ayman Salah.

I’ve been in Tunis attending the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Conference and the theme this year was, ‘New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies.’ However, I was attracted by one of the sessions that echoed old voices highlighting an embarrassing problem that imprisons good journalism: the brown envelope.

The practice of journalists accepting money from news sources, especially politicians, in order to ‘facilitate’ their stories has become rather common in African media. Some of the journalists defend the habit, saying that media owners subject them to poverty wages and exploitative working conditions, leaving them little choice but to rely on politicians’ and other corporate handouts for their daily survival.

Other journalists complain that newsroom managers don’t pay for the cost of chasing and filing stories. They don’t provide transportation for assignments or compensate the journalists for use of their own meager resources, such as mobile phone airtime, taxis or meals while on duty outside their stations of work. As a result, we now have a new strand of the trade – envelopmental journalism.

I’m a Knight International Journalism Fellow, working on a project to build a pan-African network of journalists dedicated to positively influencing the public dialogue and media coverage of growth and development in Africa. As part of my Fellowship with the International Center for Journalists, a non-profit, professional organization that promotes quality journalism worldwide, I’m always on the look out for new approaches that might help improve the standards of development reporting in Africa.

So when I took my seat in the journalism ethics session, I was eager to hear of any suggestions that might address the envelope problem from the panel of seven international experts and other journalists.

One refreshing thought came from Aidan White of Coalition for Ethical Journalism. He saw corruption in media not as a problem of individual journalists, but rather a systemic failure that could only be uprooted if the media themselves adopted the good governance principles they demand of others.

This means transparency and accountability on the part of owners. It means letting the public know who owns or controls which media and how they run their operations. It means shifting the spotlight of ethics training from the journalist at the bottom of the media pyramid to the media owner at the top.

This may not be the full answer to the problem. But if nothing happens, there’s every indication that the brown envelope could turn to a white envelope – meaning it’s accepted as part of the job. And when this becomes the norm, it will be harder to carry out investigative journalism into the very issues that keep us in poverty.