Thursday May 15 2014

Journalists should be free to query inconsistencies, or even deception

By Yusuf K. Serunkuma

On May 7, Monitor Publications’ Executive Editor Malcolm Gibson wrote a piece, calling on us “readers and sources” to help Monitor stick to ethic-compliant journalism. Sadly, the good stuff in Mr Gibson’s call for journalist-community-policing – such as journalist’s compensation for any work, should come only from Monitor – were soiled by other contradictory calls.

Although Mr Gibson sought a broader inquiry, the conspicuous crux of his article is the journalist’s relationship with political power. Seemingly unaware, Mr Gibson starts from the assumption that there is a war between media and politics – in other words, some journalists are taking sides. He urges that, “journalists should not express overt political views” at public forums and social networking sites.

We may never know what “overt political views” meant! Perhaps not to be misunderstood, Mr Gibson acknowledges the need for analysis, but urges that journalist ought to “provide sourcing to support and underscore the views presented.” What does this mean? When is opinion not backed with evidence? Gossip? Of course, gossip is gossip – and is often clearly marked as gossip. If journalists engage in rumours in stories, what are editors for?

The executive editor is too vague to communicate. And this, to use Robert Fisk’s favourite phrase, is “media cowardice.” Speaking at the Fifth Aljazeera Annual Forum, renowned journalist Robert Fisk argued that media “is about the employment of phrases and clauses, and their origins.” It is about linguistics and semantics.

One of the most contested stories in media (and scholarly) history is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fisk gives us an example of how a cowardly media frames it: “an ‘occupation’ becomes a ‘dispute’. …A ‘wall’ becomes a ‘fence’ or a ‘security barrier’. Israeli colonisation of Arab land contrary to all international law becomes ‘settlements’ or ‘outposts’ or ‘Jewish neighbourhoods’.” Fisk’s argument is that because of this media cowardice, or self-censorship, media fails to call a thing by its right name.

Interestingly, Mr Gibson does not tell us what happens when it comes to using the right words in reference to the failings of political power. What should theft, corruption, deception, incompetence, or misuse be called? When does a word constitute an opinion, or an analysis?

Fisk also notes that media “is also about the misuse of history; about our ignorance of history.” Mr Gibson seems unaware of Uganda’s media history. Of course, his over 50 years of media practice are not in Uganda.

Political run-ins with media in Uganda are not because of inaccurate or opinionated reporting, but a result of information deemed too embarrassing to reveal. You need to revisit the cases journalists have won against government.

In fact, many of us think our journalists are weak analysts. A few can crack some of the most evil matrices of government. But at least, several of them have been good at breaking stories – and this is at the heart of their troubles with political power. Why then would our executive editor raise an issue – of opinionated reports – that bears no historical trail?

On political history, the kind that Fisk is more concerned with, our politicians have a knack for short-changing and abusing our/their history. In fact, invoking “correct” history might, in Gibson’s view, constitute an “overt political opinion.” Let me give one example.

It is common for former opposition politicians to short-change their critiques of President Museveni on crossing over to his party. Would a journalist be biased if he reminded us of this, obviously, painful history? Shouldn’t journalists have a conscience to query inconsistencies, or even deception?

Mr Serunkuma is a graduate fellow at MISR, and former journalist with The Independent.