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The problem with brown envelopes

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The media in Africa can be fraught with issues of censorship and corruption at times, but as Lisanne Oldekamp explores, efforts are being made in Kenya and Uganda to stem the tide of the brown envelopes.

Although Kenyan media is mostly considered to be freer than its Ugandan counterpart, the East African countries are both seen as ‘partly free’ by most press freedom indicators. Despite the overall differences, causing Reporters without Borders to rate Kenya 33 places higher than Uganda on its 2013 Press Freedom Index (71 vs. 104), many similarities can be found between the neighbouring countries. A common threat to independent reporting is bribery. Bribe money is often handed over in brown envelopes, which have become the signature expression when referring to such practices.

“Ask anyone – we all have stories about brown envelopes. Bribery is everywhere, it is considered normal. You can get paid to write a certain story – or not to.” Grace Natabaalo, Program Associate at the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) in Kampala, is sceptical about Ugandan media’s ethical standards. Former managing director at a media outlet in Kenya, Dr. George Morara Nyabuga (currently lecturer at the University of Nairobi) argues that to a certain extent, the same can be said of his nation’s press: “The journalists’ bad salaries increase the risk of media corruption. When you visit news sources, they might give you money. The brown envelopes are quite prevalent.” Corruption and bribery form, in the words of Grace Natabaalo, a “big, big problem” in both countries – and are a major instigator of censorship in the media.

As mentioned by Dr. Nyabuga, journalists’ salaries are often insufficient to make a living. It is perhaps understandable that a lack of proper payment creates reluctant journalists when it comes to risking their personal safety or that of their news sources for investigative reports. Due to such a willingness to dive into sensitive issues, combined with a lack of resources, Dr. Nyabuga argues, the media do not engage in investigative journalism as much as they should – or would, if they had the proper resources. Instead, reports are often limited to a ‘he said, she said’, to a mere representation of quotes without any analysis.

Although Kenya’s media often publishes openly critical reports on their government, and although the 2010 constitution’s Articles 33 and 34 were praised by international organizations “for expanding freedoms of expression and of the press”, the current government (elected earlier this year) appears to be reluctant to recognize the press’ newly institutionalised power and independence. Recently, a bill that would limit the media’s independence, caused a stir among media outlets and press freedom activists. President Kenyatta sent the bill back to parliament since it did not adhere to the constitution, but Kenya’s press and its advocates continue to hold their breath.

In Uganda, too, the laws regarding press freedom are quite liberal. However, as argued by the ACME’s Grace Natabaalo, the forces in charge of executing such laws such as the police, judges and politicians, are often the ones to break them. This endangers the journalists’ personal safety and limits their ability to critically report on politically or socially sensitive issues. The Daily Monitor, known for its critical stance toward President Museveni, was shut down earlier this year for printing a critical letter by a former army General.

Bribery takes on many forms – including directly from advertiser to editorial board. “They find ways around the journalist – they bribe the editor instead. They’re very inventive,” argues Gerald Walulya, lecturer at the Department of Journalism and Communication of Makerere University in Kampala.

Furthermore, the owners of media outlets in both countries often have their own, personal or professional, business to attend to. Many media outlets are owned by members of the elite – who often have their own agenda. Natabaalo: “The owners, especially those involved in politics, have something to lose. This obviously influences the outlets’ ability to investigate sensitive issues.” Thus, despite the good intentions of journalists who are willing to refuse bribe money and risk prosecution when investigating sensitive topics, editors themselves might be bribed, or silenced by their bosses.

On a positive note
Despite the major problems faced by Kenyan and Ugandan media outlets, there is some good news. According to the Freedom House, in 2012, the pluralistic media field in Kenya “continued to live up to their traditional reputation for vibrant and critical reporting, despite cases of threats and intimidation outside the capital, Nairobi.” In the same year in Uganda, the watchdog has seen little change in malpractices such as harassment and intimidation from both state and non-state actors against media and journalists. However, it also argues that “despite these obstacles, the independent media remained vibrant, and many continued to thrive commercially. Moreover, Ugandan courts exercised a degree of independence, throwing out criminal cases brought against journalists by the state.”

Furthermore, Schools of Journalism in both countries pay a great deal of attention to ethics – with various courses explaining what should and should not be done. Although lecturers admit that theory might differ from practice, the fact in itself that students are informed on these issues is promising. The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), founded in 2009, provides trainings focusing on similar issues. In the years after its funding, the Centre has become a stakeholder in Uganda’s media field, and it has set ambitious goals for the coming years. It is vastly becoming one of the country’s major media watchdogs.

Although press freedom remains an issue of concern in both countries, the media fields are thriving, benefiting from an increasingly interested and growing field of advertisers. Hopefully, these improvements will also benefit the journalists’ salaries, as well as the quality and quantity of their investigative reports.

However, despite promising signs and real progress, the influence of ‘brown envelopes’ belies problems in the Kenyan and Ugandan media which can’t be ignored.

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