The Media and Self-Censorship

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Kae Matundu Tjiparuro “See”, “hear”, “speak” and “write” are the four clarion declarations scripted on the front and back cover of a Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) booklet on media ethics for the Namibian Media. To what extent the Namibian media is aware of these simple-sounding but fundamental words in the practice of journalism, is dubious. In fact, one does not even need to have a cursory look at the operations of the media in this country to notice that what one media house sees, hears, speaks and writes others may see but not hear, write or speak about. Still others may hear but not see. This is the essence of media diversity, one may think. Otherwise, how could one explain the discrepancy in emphasis if not total discrepancy in what the various media see, hear, speak and write about? To a certain degree, the ideological disposition of any media house could explain this. Ideology in this post-Cold War, post-Apartheid and post-Colonial era and age could refer to many different things. “Hulle” (Them) and “Julle Mense” (You People) just to give one reference in local Afrikaans parlance. However, it is not so much the ideological explanation of the journalistic approach to media coverage that has tickled my fancy, but the ethical considerations bordering on self-censorship. Two events took place last year. One eventually led to the suspension and eventual disappearance of an editor. The other event led to the suspension of an executive and his eventual resignation. What is intriguing about the two cases is that while the two events seemed to have received some coverage in the media in general, they seemed to have enjoyed little to hidden coverage in the two respective media houses of the two endangered colleagues. If the reason for the scant coverage is what I suspect – not to bite the hand that feeds you – this goes to the root of journalistic ethics. Not only that but also raises the important question of editorial independence from management. This is of course unless the editorial departments of the two instances concerned could not have seen the two items newsworthy, which I doubt every much. Most recently, the handling of news items by two media houses similar to the two instances had a re-run in two of our dailies. One splashed on the story with a big banner headline on the front page while the other although giving the story front-page treatment, suspiciously tucked it away somewhere at the foot of the front page. This story dealt with the Employment Equity Commission dragging non-compliers to the court. I would tend to lean towards thinking that the two editorial departments may have feared to run the stories lest they invite the wrath of their managerial principals. Should my thinking be amplified in one way or the other the question of ethics then strongly comes to the fore. What line may or should the editorial department cross or not cross either in reporting on matters close to it or exposing an internal vice? Ethically-speaking, if a reporter faces a conflict of interest in what she/he is to report, the sensible thing to do is to pass on the story to a colleague with no attachment to the matter to be reported on. Does the same rule also apply to editorial departments in dealing with matters internal to their media houses? Because reporting on a matter which may reflect badly on one’s media house may be interpreted as disloyalty by management and could invite disciplinary measures against the reporter or the editorial department. Be that as it may, I find it unethical for a news organization, for example, to embark on a crusade against corruption starting and stopping only before the doors of others. It is not only unethical but an act of double standards. Shouldn’t these media houses be the ones scooping others with regard to vices in their midst given their vantage positions in these organizations? Unless of course “see”, “hear”, “speak” and “write” are qualified as only seeing and hearing but not speaking and writing when it comes to vices in own backyard. More often than not, the media houses are quick to point out the vices in others as if they are devoid of any vices. What are we supposed to do with the vices or skeletons in our own cupboards? Or are we seeing our business as purely seeing and writing about the vices of others. What about our vices? Who is supposed to see and write about them? The best option is perhaps for those on crusades against societal vices to be viceless. But can our media houses be said to be without vices? This is just food for thought to all media colleagues, editorial and otherwise.